It's not the ending that Kate Eifrig expected for the stage career she built over the past 16 years. But it is an ending, and it will have to do.
The Twin Cities actor has won strong reviews for portraying powerful characters on the area's premier stages, with highlights that include a tour-de-force solo show, "Nine Parts of Desire," which ran at the Guthrie Theater.
Also at the Guthrie, she played three roles in a collection of short Tony Kushner plays that originated in Minneapolis and toured to Berkeley, Calif., and London. Most unforgettably in those playlets, Eifrig played former First Lady Laura Bush, reading aloud to Iraqi children tales of wartime atrocities from "The Brothers Karamazov."
Intense, statuesque and wavy-haired, Eifrig won an Ivey Award. But her storied stage career ran head-on into a mental and physical health crisis. This year, Eifrig, 38, made the painful decision to quit the stage.
"It feels like grieving, but for my own health, I must leave," she said.
Eifrig's situation is unique to her, but many artists will be able to identify with her plight.
Most, like Eifrig, work without insurance or retirement accounts, so a health setback can become a career-ender. Benefits have been held in the Twin Cities recently for Ann Marsden, the esteemed photographer who died in July, and actor Phil Kilbourne, who is battling cancer.
"I'm sad for the field -- Kate Eifrig is a great actress and it saddens me to lose such a monumental talent," said Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley (Calif.) Rep, who directed Eifrig in "Tiny Kushner." "But my other reaction is that this is fantastic. I want to see her use all her intensity, all her immense capacity and talent, to heal herself. She's suffering, and she's probably going to become a white knight for a new cause."
"It's a hard thing that Kate has been wrestling with," said director Michelle Hensley, founder of Ten Thousand Things, where Eifrig has performed regularly, as actor and cellist. (An English honors graduate, Eifrig minored in music at Tulane University.) "She's got the moxie, ferocity, courage to conquer it."
Eifrig said that her physical health started to decline just before slipping into the veils of Islamic women in "Nine Parts of Desire" in 2008.
"I threw myself into everything I did, no matter what it was," she said, "but I started to have less in the well to pull from."
Her symptoms included severe pain and huge fluctuations in weight. Eifrig recalls coming home after performances and being unable to climb the steps to her home; she crawled the rest of the way.
The unexplained physical decline was tied to her mental health, too.
"My issues mystified medical doctors and baffled psychiatrists," she said. "It's different from people who can put their fingers on a diagnosis -- cancer, stroke, diabetes. This is an elusive, insidious beast."
After visits to doctors to find out what ailed her, she finally got a diagnosis: refractory depression, a severe, chronic illness that is unresponsive to traditional treatment.
Her doctor prescribed a canine companion. She found a service dog for sale at a specialist in Seattle, and, with the help of friends such as Melodie Bahan and director Joel Sass, she set up a website (www.k94k8.com) to raise funds. The theater community rallied, pitching in nearly $30,000 to purchase the dog, retrieve it from Seattle and set up a veterinary account. She will get the dog early next year.
"Everyone has someone who has invisible battles, whether mental illness, addiction, whatever," said Eifrig. "They could be hobbling around on crutches or in a wheelchair, but you see the manifestation of their wound. For me, this invisible and private pain that's so fricking hard will be visible now. My pal, the service dog, will make the invisible visible."
Avid Cubs fan
Eifrig is the youngest of four children born to college professors in northwest Indiana, near Chicago. Both parents taught at Valparaiso University. She and the family used to go to Chicago to take in baseball games.
"My grandfather, who was a Lutheran pastor, used to sign off his letters: P.S. Pray for the Cubs," she remembered. "We're old-school diehards who took pride in our losing team."
After Tulane, she moved to the Twin Cities in 1996 to be with her older sister, Annie, who was studying film editing at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
"I hadn't done theater in college, but knew I could do it, so I just started auditioning," she said.
Her first role in the Twin Cities was in Ari Hoptman's "Sex Lives of Superheroes" at tiny Bryant-Lake Bowl.
"It was also my first stage kiss," she said.
The role got her noticed, and soon she was auditioning and winning bigger and bigger parts.
"She can do all kinds of things, but at Ten Thousand Things we have need for the brave, strong, fighting women," said Hensley, whose company performs in prisons and shelters. For Hensley's company, Eifrig has appeared in more than half a dozen shows, including as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," Audrey in "A Little Shop of Horrors" and Antigone.
"Our audiences relate to Kate because they can sense she's had a little living under her belt," said Hensley.
When Eifrig was with the "Tiny Kushner" tour in London, she did not go out much, Taccone said. But when she came to the theater, "she was upbeat and ready to go. She's a soldier, and if she shows up, she's ready to battle."
Taccone wondered if casting Eifrig in "Tiny Kushner" may have been bad for her.
"In one piece, she played a psychiatrist, where her character suddenly breaks into a suicidal rant and yells, 'Die, die, die,'" he said. "I had no idea that she was suffering anywhere near the extent that she was. I probably wouldn't have cast her in those roles if I'd known. That said, I think that her suffering probably helped make her art so rarefied."
Reality of acting life
"I've been very fortunate with work, which has kept me putting one foot in front of the other, which is what it always comes down to," said Eifrig. "But the personal toll was too great. Nobody likes to talk about the tremendous financial insecurity of it all. You win a McKnight [fellowship] and do a show on the Guthrie stage, and people can't quite believe that you have to get government assistance. You live public and very glamorous lives, and yet you have to go around the house and sell anything you can get your hands on to make the bills. If you worked every week of the year, you would make only about $30,000 a year. How are you going to pay the mortgage or keep your health insurance? Combine those with a medical issue and ... ," her voice trailed off.
"I know a lot of people who have severe anxiety and depression who are actors," she continued. "Acting sometimes can be like a fun house of mirrors. Everything is distorted and nothing is true. It is fun to lose yourself in it, slip into someone else's soul. But in this business, burnout is inevitable. I've been experiencing this sense of aging very quickly. I'm now playing myself, and it's the hardest role I've ever played."
Eifrig's last role was as the youngest daughter of the Weston clan in "August: Osage County" at Park Square Theater in St. Paul last fall.
She now fills her days with work at an upscale supermarket, and with visits to her therapist. She is applying the work ethic for which she is famous in the theater world to herself.
"Whenever I had a project, I always sunk my effing teeth in it," Eifrig said. "Every single director was always telling me, 'Kate, trust yourself. Do less. You don't have to try so hard.' That's translating into my real life now. I am enough."
What will she do next?
"I'm not sure," she said. "It'll probably be something in the mental-health field."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390