For five seasons, from 2017-23, stage and screen veteran Caroline Aaron – a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a performing arts graduate of American University in Washinton, DC, who later studied acting at HB Studio in NYC and serves there as a guest instructor – entertained millions of viewers in the award-winning TV hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime, in the role of Midge’s mother-in-law Shirley. Widely known for her guest appearances on the television series Wings, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Desperate Housewives, Transparent, Madam Secretary, The Good Fight, and Ghosts, and roles in popular films by Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Stanley Tucci, Aaron has also been a longtime presence in the theater, whose Broadway credits include I Hate Hamlet, Social Security, Woody Allen’s Relatively Speaking, and the 1985 revival of The Iceman Cometh starring Jason Robards.
This month, she makes her return to the New York stage at Actors Temple Theatre, in the Off-Broadway premiere of Sandra Tsing Loh’s Madwomen of the West, a comedy about four old friends of a certain age who reunite for what turns out to be a disastrous birthday brunch thrown by Marilyn at Jules’ upscale home in the Brentwood section of LA. Directed by Tom Caruso, the star-studded cast features Aaron, along with Brooke Adams, Marilu Henner, and Melanie Mayron, whose Baby Boomer feminist characters let loose with popping champagne corks and flaring tempers, wild tirades and insights about life, aging, men, children, and womanhood in the 21st century, as they try to figure it all out.
Caroline kindly made time in her busy rehearsal schedule, before previews begin on November 11, to give us a sneak peek at the show and her thoughts about the story and her character.
How did you become involved in this production and what about it attracted you?
Caroline: Several years ago, I did Sandra Loh’s play Madwoman in a Volvo. I had met her at a benefit, where we were seated at the same table. She said to me, “I worship you,” and I told her, “I worship you, too!” – so she asked me to be in her new play, which she was also appearing in, based on her autobiography. We workshopped it in Colorado and it became a big hit in California. Then one day during the pandemic she asked me if I would do a zoom meeting referencing feminist women. We heard that a professor was given a list of things she couldn’t teach, including The Vagina Monologues; it was considered a trigger for students because, she was told, “You don’t have to have a vagina to be a woman.” The language was being banned.
Sandra called again a couple of months later; she wanted to write a play about women of a certain age who are very under-represented on the stage, even though more than 50% of theater tickets are bought by women over 50. We did zoom readings every month, when she had new pages ready, and workshopped it in LA, after I had just finished Mrs. Maisel. I had to decide if I wanted to leave New York and go to California, where she’s better known than she is on the East Coast (though my husband knew her from her first book, Depth Takes a Holiday, about living in Los Angeles, which is so hilarious and so true!). I did decide to go, and the show became an enormous hit. Sandra was right, there’s a need for women to see themselves and for an uptick in hearing women’s voices. I have so much respect for her as a writer, actress, scientist, educator, radio host on NPR, and a Chinese American woman mentored by Wendy Wasserstein’s works. Plus, with her, I feel like I have real creative input, which isn’t always the case.
Which character do you play and what do you find most relatable about her?
I play Marilyn. In the opening I say, “I’m out of step with the times, always, in every decade.” She’s a first-wave feminist, like Bella Abzug, making noise, being loud and proud. She sees how the next generations evolved, cannibalizing each other and having little respect for the early feminists. What I relate to is that I have a daughter who isn’t aware of how she’s walking through the door the older generation opened for her, just as I did with my mother. Knocking down doors for future generations of women – that’s what I love about the character.
What are you enjoying most about your return to the New York stage after being seen for several years on screen in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and what’s the biggest challenge of live theater versus TV and film work?
Returning is scary – and that’s fun! Yes, Mrs. Maisel is so dense and complicated, but if you make a mistake when you’re filming for TV or a movie, you can go back and do another take. Not with live theater. It’s where I started, it’s where my heart is, and I need to be scared again!
How would you describe the overall tone of the play?
It’s wildly funny, with a deep bottom. We all need to laugh right now, because it’s been such a bad time. What I also love about the play is that, like in the old days, it’s an exciting new work. It’s a risk, at a time when people, during the recovery of theater following the long pandemic closure, are so averse to taking a risk.
Is there one message or sentiment you hope audiences take away from the show?
There’s a lot, but I hope they take away how valuable women are in general, and how valuable female friendships are. When a family member dies, you can take time off from work to grieve, but not for a friend. Women are often depicted as adversarial or competitive, but if I didn’t have my women friends, my husband would have had it a lot harder! This show is the one time I’ve ever seen that represented.
Many thanks, Caroline, for giving our readers an inside preview of the production and your insights into it. I look forward to seeing you and the show!
Running Time: Approximately 98 minutes, without intermission.
Madwomen of the West plays Saturday, November 11, 2023-Monday, January 1, 2024, at Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $39.50, plus fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online.