In her autobiographical show Mouth Wide Open, the "Private Practice" doctor looks at life as a patient
Television viewers are accustomed to seeing actress Amy Brenneman in the role of healer, as psychiatrist Violet Turner on the hit ABC television drama "Private Practice." Those who catch her latest project, however - the soulful stage show Mouth Wide Open, running May 24 - 29 at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater - can see a whole other side of the gifted performer: Amy Brenneman, patient. "I had colitis," says Brenneman, matter-of-factly, sounding for all the world like one of her medical colleagues from the fictional Oceanside Wellness Centre offering a diagnosis. "Things started to go bad in the fall of 2009, and it was January of 2010 when I had major surgery to remove about half of my colon, after months of really feeling just utterly depleted. I lost about 30 pounds in a very short period of time."
Brenneman recovered from her surgery, and, despite a second brief hospitalization, even finished filming the third season of "Practice." The details of her illness weren’t widely reported, and she might’ve just tried to put things behind her and move on with her life as a performer, producer, wife and mother of two. However, at the precise time she’d been struck by her illness, Brenneman had been working on a side project - adapting some of her observational essays, blog postings and journal entries into a theatrical piece to be directed by her longtime friend (and fellow Harvard alum) Sabrina Peck. Rather than let the colitis sideline her project, Brenneman decided to incorporate her experiences with illness and recovery into the show, and so, Mouth Wide Open was born. The piece made its world premiere last summer on Martha’s Vineyard (where Brenneman makes her summer home), and now brings Brenneman back to Harvard for its run at the A.R.T.
"It’s not so much a linear play as it is a look at how your consciousness shifts when you’re spending time lying in a hospital bed," says Brenneman. "I found myself having a lot of those ‘a-ha moments,’ as Oprah calls them. I felt like I was getting messages through my body."
From her years on another TV drama, "Judging Amy" (a series inspired by the work of Brenneman’s mother as a Connecticut Superior Court Justice), to the revealing look at her health struggles in Mouth, it’s clear that the actress has never shied away from mining real life for compelling drama. "I’m definitely drawn to real stories - I think the truth is far more interesting than anything I could come up with," Brenneman says. "And if it’s a story worth telling, I find that before long, it ceases to be about me and a much more universal element works its way in."
Mouth Wide Open sees Brenneman guiding audiences on an often surreal journey from the superficiality of a Tinseltown red carpet, to the stark reality of a hospital bed, to a variety of sacred places where Brenneman seeks spiritual comfort and understanding of life’s deeper meanings. It’s the kind of intriguing amalgamation of obsessions one might expect from a woman who majored in comparative religion at Harvard, yet ended up a Hollywood star, known for her roles on "NYPD Blue," "Amy" and "Practice."
Personal explorations of religion and spirituality are something that popular entertainers frequently shy away from, but Brenneman shrugs off the idea that the depictions of everything from a Tibetan temple in Kathmandu to an evangelical church in the Mississippi delta will somehow inspire audiences to slap a label on her. In fact, it’s likely to be just the contrary. "I’m pretty much the opposite of an orthodox anything," she laughs. "Currently, I go to a wonderful Episcopalian church, but I’m also half-Jewish. I’m a real polyglot.
"I’ve always thought that with all the beautiful expressions there are in the world of how human beings can find meaning in life, for anyone to say that ‘our way is the only way’ just closes doors when we should be looking to open them."
Brenneman credits her director and friend, Peck, with making Mouth the production it is today. "We knew we wanted to do a show, but we were just starting to mull over what it was going to be about when I got really sick," she recalls. "It was Sabrina that very gently led me to the idea that some of the stuff I was experiencing as a result of my illness was appropriate to write about."
From that breakthrough moment on, Brenneman found herself leaning on Peck’s dual qualifications as lifelong confidant and skilled director to craft and mold Mouth. "She has unique advantages as a collaborator, because she knows me so well that there’s an absolute shorthand in the way we can communicate with each other. She was always telling me not to worry if I felt I wasn’t making much sense.
"As a director, she was always interested in extending the movement aspect of the piece and wasn’t afraid to let it get a bit surreal," Brenneman adds. "She had such a vision for the show and how it would all coalesce - I honestly couldn’t have done it without her."
One of the ideas at the very heart of Mouth, according to Brenneman, is the fundamental ways in which life is different after experiencing a serious illness. "There’s a point in the show where one of my friends tells me that I should be relieved because it’s all done now and I’m back to where I was," she muses. "But the throughline of the story is that you never go back to who you were. Things like this change you forever."
Given the unpleasant impetus for the show, the potential certainly existed for Mouth to be a bit of a downer. But Brenneman’s quick to point out the stream of offbeat humor that runs through the show. "Honestly, things don’t really get heavy as much as they get absurd," she says. "During the process of being sick and in recovery, I was shocked at how many ‘I just can’t f-ing believe this’ moments I encountered."
Many of the show’s funniest moments, according to Brenneman, feature the surgeon who guided her through the difficult procedure. "When I started writing my surgeon - this brilliant, brilliant socially inept man - I didn’t have to make up a word. The things that come out of this guy’s mouth are just...," she trails off, laughing, before adding, "My doctor hasn’t seen the show yet. I’m too nervous."
Brenneman says the opportunity to bring Mouth to the A.R.T. came together organically, helped, of course, by the roots she and Peck have at Harvard and with A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus. "Diane is an old castmate of mine," says Brenneman. "We noodled around as performers in a couple of shows at Harvard. I know Diane is interested in busting out into all kinds of exciting directions with A.R.T., so it’s thrilling to come back here and do the show."
The new production of Mouth at A.R.T. also allows Peck and Brenneman to incorporate new elements that were difficult to pull off at the show’s original venue, The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard. "The Yard is a magical place to perform, but there were some technical limitations," Brenneman laughs. "The show begins with a short film, but there’d be light leaking into the barn while it was running. Now we’ve been able to add to the video sequences in the show, and expand upon our use of soundscapes."
Brenneman admits that part of her wasn’t sure she was ready to revisit an undeniably challenging and painful episode in her life for the new A.R.T. productionof Mouth. "As a performer, I’m not terribly Method - I actually tend to get a little impatient with actors that are. But there’s no doubt that rehearsing for this and reliving it....I will be emotionally connected to that time of being sick. But I’m prepared to just feel whatever’s there to be felt."
The rehearsals for, and performances of, Mouth Wide Open come hot on the heels of Brenneman wrapping production on the fourth season of "Practice." From there, the actress embarks on that blissful phenomenon shared mainly by teachers, schoolchildren and successful TV stars: a long summer vacation. "I might spend some time filming a web series project I’ve been working on, but I fully expect to enjoy some downtime," says Brenneman. "We are in love with the Vineyard, I still have family close by - my brother’s in Marblehead, my folks are in Connecticut - so I’ll spend a lot of time reconnecting. When I get back to this area, it’s really about unplugging."