Amid kings and lords, these three women rivet our attention in the Guthrie's production of the late Shakespeare play.
"The Winter's Tale" is ostensibly propelled by men. Sicilia's King Leontes, mad with jealousy, drives the action of a play that is both dark tragedy and pastoral comedy.
But a powerful female trio, given terrific embodiment at the Guthrie by Helen Carey, Michelle O'Neill and Christine Weber, serves as the heart and soul of this Shakespearean classic. O'Neill plays Hermione, the pregnant queen falsely accused of infidelity by Leontes, who puts her on trial. Carey depicts Paulina, Hermione's fearless advocate who speaks truth to power -- not an easy task when you are a woman confronting a monarch. And Weber plays Perdita, Hermione's daughter, abandoned in infancy and raised by a shepherd.
"These women are victims of circumstance but they know who they are," said Carey. "Whether from a sense of unknowing innocence [Perdita], innate centeredness [Hermione] or from the experience and long life of someone who sees an injustice being done, they all have strength."
Written as Shakespeare neared the end of his life, "Winter's Tale" is part of a series that orbits jealousy.
"He wrote the same story several times, where a male figure becomes convinced that his beloved has been unfaithful," said author and Shakespearean scholar Shirley Garner, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota. "He starts out having a representation of that infidelity in 'Much Ado About Nothing.' In 'Othello,' Iago is always goading him. In 'The Winter's Tale,' the jealousy is totally within the male figure. Nobody provokes it. The problem is more and more within these characters."
More than two dozen Guthrie roles
At the Guthrie, Paulina serves as a moral anchor against Leontes' spinout. Carey, who has been in more than two dozen Guthrie productions, including "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons," nails the role with ferocity and mastery. It is a sweet return for this Boston-bred stage veteran who appeared in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hedda Gabler" and was nominated for a Tony Award for her turn in "London Assurance." She played Hermione in a 1970s production of "Winter's Tale" at the Guthrie. In fact, Carey made her professional stage debut at the Guthrie in 1966, playing a Southern-accented Phebe in Edward Payson Call's antebellum-set "As You Like It."
"Shakespeare's phrasing is more inverted in this one," she said, adding that she approached Paulina as she has other roles. "You have to lean into the intention and the language of the play to make your point. And you have to make sure your body is engaged -- find tricks of owning those unfamiliar sounds and marrying them up to real emotion."
During recent interviews, including one on the "Winter's Tale" set, the three actors spoke about their characters, their careers and their surprising fear of Shakespeare.
"The truth is, I'm a wimp," said O'Neill, whose tremulous stand during Hermione's trial is an emotion-tugging moment in the show. "I'm always terrified to look at a script. I come to work and just try to be courageous. You can't jump a step or make assumptions about your character."
"Shakespeare paints these women in big, bold colors," said Carey, who likens Paulina to a politician speaking in the well of the Senate. "You have to remember that it's somebody else's skin you're trying to get inside of." She shifted in her seat as if trying to get comfortable in a pair of new jeans. "It's a hard process to shed your own persona, your own thought processes. You have to lay down synapses, tracks, of this person on the page. You have to train yourself to think in the sequences of this person."
O'Neill, an Idaho native and Juilliard graduate, said that seeing Carey, whom she has known socially but has not worked with before, always inspires her.
The feeling appears to be mutual. "Shelly [O'Neill] is fearless in that trial scene," said Carey.
Weber, a relative newbie and the daughter of Twin Cities actor Karen Weber, has performed with both Carey (in "When We Are Married") and O'Neill (in "The Merchant of Venice"). O'Neill taught Weber in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie BFA program.
"Part of the reason I chose my school was because I'd seen Helen in 'Death of a Salesman,'" said Weber. "I'd met her and was completely gaga. And Shelly was one of my favorite teachers in school. I still feel star-struck to be sharing a dressing room with them."
She added that Perdita is an ideal ingénue because she personifies young love. "It's sex and youth and discovery," she said. "At the same time, her mother comes through so strongly. She has this quiet strength, this gusto, behind her, which is not always a given with an ingénue."
"Winter's Tale" is Weber's third Shakespearean play, and Perdita, her flower child with regal bearing, is her biggest role to date.
"This is my coming-out party," she said. "In plays like this, I'm usually corseted and tightly wound, in one way or another. So, it's fun to be, literally, this free."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390