BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
For almost a decade, Kelley Faulkner has wowed Milwaukee Repertory Theater audiences with her scrumptious ability to embody an array of complex women — from “Cabaret” showgirl Sally Bowles to doomed country music icon Patsy Cline in “Always … Patsy Cline” to the heroic Miep Gies in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
But, says Faulkner, her newest role, in Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s “Things I Know to be True,” spoke to her “on every level.”
In short: bring your hankie. But get set to laugh too.
“I’ve gotten to play some incredible roles and certainly things that I emotionally related to, but I haven’t done a piece of contemporary drama since I’ve been in Milwaukee, really,” Faulkner continues of Bovell’s poignant creation, which features a stunning curved stage and rending physical elements. “To pick up a script and read a character that is so like yourself in many ways is beautiful and scary and exciting.”
The lyrical family drama follows members of the Price family, each of whom is at a crossroads in his or her life and self-perception, prodding long festering emotional wounds and threatening new ones. Faulkner plays 30-something Pip, the eldest of weary Bob and Fran Price’s four intensely different adult children. “Pip is so much like her mother, which is a big part of the problem for them and their relationship,” explains Faulkner, wife of The Rep’s artistic director Mark Clements and mom to grade-schooler Amelie. “[Pip is] the oldest child, so her upbringing has been really different from her two youngest siblings, and she’s independent and stubborn and even though she’s built a life for herself, she’s at a point where she’s actually finding who she really is and is asserting her independence in a different way.”
Which could devastate those closest to her.
Bovell, who gently tailored his Aussie-centered work to an American audience, spent a week with The Rep cast — something Faulkner, an unabashed Bovell fan, calls “an amazing gift” as the cast immersed themselves in his achingly relatable relationships. “It’s really also about how the kind of love we give — and are able to give — is not always the kind of love that the receiver needs or wants,” she muses. “Navigating that and seeing people how they need to be seen, not how you choose to see them, is a running theme in this play.”
Faulkner, a native New Yorker, began dancing at age 3. Singing lessons and roles in local theater soon followed, setting the willowy beauty on a career path interrupted only so she could make time “to be a normal high school student” and college coed. A move to Philadelphia led her to Clements, who cast her in a local production of “Les Miserablés.” Pals at first, the duo fell in love, and when Clements was offered his role at The Rep in 2009, Faulkner came too.
“We were really excited and already in love with Milwaukee by the time we decided to fully take the plunge,” she says, sitting in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex’s light-filled rehearsal space as other actors mill about. “I’ve worked in some really fantastic theaters, but [with] the actual physical space here, the actors have so much room to breathe. I’d actually never worked in a theater of this scale.”
Nor did she have a chance to play a favored role twice, as she did with The Rep’s knockout stagings of “Always … Patsy Cline.”
“I had an amazing experience the first time we did ‘Patsy,’” says Faulkner, who, scrubbed of her stage makeup and oft-flamboyant costumes, is delicately lovely, with the enviably proud walk of a lifelong dancer. “I’ve always felt connected to that music and I think my voice sits really naturally there. So getting to do it a second time [with her best friend and sole costar Tami Workentin] felt almost a bit daunting, but like a true gift. … It’s so rare that that happens, and truly rare that it happens in the same physical space at the same theater.”
Faulkner adds that any work featuring women relating to other women (or, for that matter men) in a way that doesn’t involve romance, is rare as well.
“I think women are, in this day and age, interested in playing roles that are not only strong and independent, but don’t have anything to do with men or relationships,” says Faulkner, an active member of Actors Equity Association and a vocal champion for better opportunities and fair wages for actors outside the Los Angeles/New York theater hubs. “That idea is always interesting to me, because those roles are really few and far between.” MKE