THE­ATER:

The Tony Award win­ner has let her ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ char­ac­ter seep deep in­side: ‘You wake up some morn­ings, and your chest hurts’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS IN NEW YORK peter.marks@wash­post.com

Tony Award win­ner Rachel Bay Jones has let her role in “Dear Evan Hansen” seep in.

Rachel Bay Jones has a the­ory about the roots of the ter­ri­ble act upon which ev­ery­thing else hinges in the Tony Award-win­ning “Dear Evan Hansen” — the lie that Evan per­pet­u­ates and that ul­ti­mately causes such enor­mous heartache. Her hy­poth­e­sis con­cerns not so much the griev­ing fam­ily he hurts, but rather the rift in his own fam­ily, the drift­ing apart of Evan and the char­ac­ter Jones plays, Evan’s mom, Heidi.

As she sees it, the key to the show’s dev­as­tat­ing turn of events is the fray­ing of the bond be­tween Evan, a teenager of pro­found anx­i­eties, and Heidi, an over­stressed sin­gle mother. At a time when par­ent and child nor­mally sep­a­rate, these two don’t, not healthily and not in equal mea­sure. They’re so ac­cus­tomed to be­ing there for each other, she says, that when the dis­trac­tions

mul­ti­ply, with Heidi over­whelmed by other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and Evan grow­ing ever more so­cially iso­lated, the son looks else­where to re­store his sense of sta­bil­ity.

“When that re­la­tion­ship is torn apart for what­ever rea­son, and the close­ness is lost, as nat­u­rally hap­pens to teenagers, he goes to an­other fam­ily for that,” she says. “It ex­plains so much about why Evan could lie so eas­ily to this other fam­ily, be­cause he was used to tak­ing care of his sin­gle mom.”

Jones has had lots of time to pon­der the psychological frame­work of “Dear Evan Hansen.” She’s been with the show for more than three years now, hav­ing played Heidi since the first read­ing in Man­hat­tan in 2014. She was in the ver­sions of the show that pre­miered at Arena Stage in Wash­ing­ton in 2015 and then off-Broadway at Sec­ond Stage Theatre, be­fore it moved to Broadway last fall. She and Ben Platt, who plays Evan, have spent these years forg­ing one of the more nu­anced mother-son con­nec­tions the mu­si­cal the­ater has known, a so­phis­ti­cated col­lab­o­ra­tion the the­ater world en­shrined last month by vot­ing them both Tony Awards for their per­for­mances.

Platt has been widely cel­e­brated for his wrench­ingly in­tense, all but su­per­hu­man ex­er­tions in the mu­si­cal by song­writ­ers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Steven Leven­son. But the 47-year-old Jones — who grew up in South Florida and has been work­ing in the the­ater since ar­riv­ing in New York in 1989 and al­most in­stan­ta­neously be­ing cast in a Broadway ver­sion of “Meet Me in St. Louis” — cre­ates in Heidi some­thing just as re­mark­able. That fact is af­firmed in pow­er­house mo­ments such as the evening’s penul­ti­mate num­ber, the rav­ish­ing “So Big/So Small,” about the breakup of her mar­riage and its im­pact on Evan.

In some ways, her chal­lenge is even more for­mi­da­ble, given the time con­straints of bring­ing sup­port­ing char­ac­ters fully into be­ing in a mu­si­cal. Jones has to meet the de­mands of an­i­mat­ing Heidi’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and strengths in highly eco­nom­i­cal fashion. In an in­ter­view re­cently in the green room back­stage at the Mu­sic Box Theatre, she talked wist­fully about the scenes that had to be trimmed and lines that were cut that more lux­u­ri­ously ex­plored the bound­aries of Heidi and Evan’s lives to­gether. For­tu­nately, three years in the skin of an­other per­son pro­vide an ac­tor with a use­ful cush­ion, es­pe­cially as that process per­tains to a self­de­scribed “slow, deep learner” such as Jones.

“I know this woman,” she says of Heidi. “She’s real. And she’s not me. She’s not. There’s a lot of me in her be­cause what else can we bring out, but our own ex­pe­ri­ence and our own ob­ser­va­tions?

“I have a 14-year-old daugh­ter, so a lot of this comes from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,” she adds. “A lot of this comes from the re­la­tion­ship I have with my own mother, the re­la­tion­ship she has with her mother. And with Heidi in par­tic­u­lar, some­thing I can def­i­nitely re­late to is that she’s just try­ing to sur­vive, you know? There’s an in­stinct that par­ents have for sur­vival that teenagers don’t some­times have. We know this about life. We know that when some­thing comes up, it’s like, ‘Buck up! Get your s--- to­gether! It’s a long road!’ ”

The road for Jones be­gan in Boca Ra­ton, Fla., in a house­hold filled to the rafters with drama: Her par­ents, Den­nis Jones and Mona Feit, clas­si­cal ac­tors who worked ex­ten­sively at Shake­speare fes­ti­vals, were, as she de­scribes it, “very grand.” Her fa­ther was “this kind of re­served, com­posed guy, and my mother is the most ex­plo­sive, the big­gest, the most ev­ery­thing — and as a par­ent she’s like that, too. Shake­speare was freely quoted in the house and that was just the way they spoke.”

They left the busi­ness af­ter Rachel and her brother came along, open­ing up health food stores (and even­tu­ally retiring to Hawaii). Their in­tro­verted daugh­ter didn’t grow up want­ing to em­u­late them. But at some point in ado­les­cence, she suc­cumbed, and dropped out of Spanish River High School in Boca to ap­pear in a pro­duc­tion of Wil­liam Inge’s “Pic­nic” at Florida At­lantic University, where a cast mate was Marc Kud­isch, an ac­tor who would be­come a life­long friend.

Along with a group of stu­dents from the university, she moved to New York, lack­ing any for­mal train­ing in act­ing or voice — to this day, she says, she’s never taken a class. “I’ve never been a per­former per­former, like, ‘Look at me! Look what I can do!’ I can’t func­tion on that level. As soon as I start to try do­ing that, I crum­ble.

“So,” she adds, “I don’t re­ally want to be looked at. But I des­per­ately want to be seen.”

Jones’s stage ca­reer is one of those that has ac­cel­er­ated as she has ma­tured. Af­ter ap­pear­ances in the Broadway re­vival of “Hair!” in 2009 and a mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of the movie “Women on the Verge of a Ner­vous Break­down” in 2010, a bona fide break­through oc­curred for her in the 2013 re­vival of “Pip­pin,” a Tony-win­ning re­vival in which she played Cather­ine, who sings the buoy­ant Stephen Schwartz song, “Or­di­nary Woman.”

“It’s hard to want to go to work some days, be­cause it’s so deep and it re­quires so much.” Rachel Bay Jones

And then came “Evan.” Leven­son, among oth­ers, has ob­served that right from that ini­tial read­ing, Jones’s por­trayal be­came a part of the project that the cre­ative team wanted to pre­serve. That’s great for an ac­tor’s con­fi­dence, but it hasn’t meant that living in­side a mu­si­cal that deals with such sen­si­tive top­ics as sui­cide and men­tal ill­ness has be­come any eas­ier. “It’s hard to want to go to work some days, be­cause it’s so deep and it re­quires so much of ev­ery cell,” she says. “You just wake up some morn­ings, and your chest hurts.”

You don’t tend to think of be­ing in a mu­si­cal as some­thing to re­cover from. That’s why for Jones, the hope­ful fi­nal scene is a par­tic­u­lar bless­ing.

“There’s a gen­tle up­lift, a beau­ti­ful sort of flow­er­ing that comes out at the end of the show, and that al­lows all of us to walk away with­out want­ing to end it all,” she says, laugh­ing. “Heidi needs that, and Evan needs that. And Rachel needs that.” Dear Evan Hansen, mu­sic and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Steven Leven­son. Di­rected by Michael Greif. Tick­ets: $119-$499. At the Mu­sic Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

JESSE DITTMAR FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Rachel Bay Jones in her dress­ing room at the Mu­sic Box Theatre in New York.

MATTHEW MURPHY

BE­LOW: Jones with Ben Platt, who plays her son in “Dear Evan Hansen,” the show that brought Jones a Tony Award in June for best per­for­mance by an ac­tress in a fea­tured role in a mu­si­cal.

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