Mercedes Ruehl speaking at Edward Albee’s memorial service held at the August Wilson Theatre in 2016. She appeared in Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” “Occupant,” ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?.” Performing in “The Goat,” which is about a married man who has an affair with a goat, Ruehl recalled that she and Bill Pullman, who co-starred as her husband, received threats from outraged theater-goers during the run. One night she told the playwright, “Edward, do you realize that every night, we actors risk our lives in the service of your play?” Albee responded, “Do you realize that every night I risk my play in the service of you actors?”

I met Mercedes Ruehl recently in her dressing room before an evening performance of Torch Song at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway.  I had just come from Joan Allen’s dressing room over at the Golden Theatre to interview her as well before her own performance in The Waverly Gallery.  So Mercedes began by talking generously about Joan.

MERCEDES RUEHL:  I shared a dressing room with Joan when we did The Marriage of Bette and Boo together.  I was so moved by her middle-of-the-country kind of spirit.  She was a midwestern gal, but she had an inherent taste in everything. 

KEVIN SESSUMS:  There’s a regality about her.

MR:  Yes.

KS:  And yet she’s the daughter of a gas station owner.  So there is the smell of gas on her fingers, too.  There is that incongruity.  But that, to me, is where art lies: in the crotch of incongruity. 

MR:  That’s an interesting phrase and probably pretty damn accurate.

KS:  You’re a child of Queens, not the midwest.

MR:   Yeah, but its the same kind of … well not the same, except that it is the same sort of shuttered view of the world, if one were to go with the stereotype of Queens, as there is a shuttered view of the world in the midwest.  Normally, you’re talking about blue – or early-blooming – white collar people.  Such groups in our population generally lived by received wisdom of generations before, which is perhaps what we’re seeing in the country right now.  But, yeah, I felt an immediate kinship with Joan. 

KS:  Let’s not make this all about Joan.  

MR:  But there is a quality of restraint about her that I really love.  I have always been impetuous rather than restrained.  So we were well-matched as dressing room mates because we really sort of  … ah … completed each other, in a way. 

KS:  Your dad was not a gas station owner.  He was an FBI agent.

MR:  Yes.  He was from the Bronx.   Big family.  Six children.   He himself was the child of a New York city cop and his Irish wife.   My grandfather was part German and part Irish.  I’m actually more Irish than anything else.  And Catholic.  All four grandparents were rivers of Catholicism.

KS:  And yet you’ve won awards from the Cuban community for your being Cuban.

MR:  And for roles that were  Jewish and Italian.  But never for being an Irish Catholic wench.  Never.  Not a wealthy family – my father’s.  He was in the Second World War.  He was in the army.  So when he came out he went to Fordham on the G.I. Bill.  At that time, J. Edgar Hoover was hiring from all the Jesuit universities in the 1950s because he knew he was going to get readymade agents because he had – Hoover – a very, very strict, if not almost distorted, sense of morality.  For instance, it was encouraged that if any agent knew of another agent who was having an extramarital affair he should report that person because that person could possibly be compromised by a spy who was trying to approach him sexually.  It got to be almost fetishistic under Hoover.  But that was the FBI. 

KS:  Was being the daughter of an FBI agent like being a preacher’s kid in some way?  You are expected inordinately to behave so you misbehave to counteract that? 

MR:  My father was very stern morally.  He was a Democrat by nature, but he voted Republican on one issue: Roe v. Wade.  He thought – and went to his death believing – that abortion was murder. 

KS:  So did you rebel against his moral sternness?

MR:  My brother and I both did.  My brother became a journalist.  He was a columnist for The Financial Review in Australia.  He died about six years ago.  He had quite a following there because he wrote an irreverent American’s column.  It started out being about politics, but then it opened up to be about everything.  The human experience.   I remember, yeah, in the ‘60s, my brother and I rebelled a bit.   But my parents were hard people to stand up to.  They set up the situation where you felt if you were not towing the line  …  well, I’m not sure what we thought would happen.  We’d get thrown out or fed to wolves or something, I guess.  But they had us pretty well-disciplined.  I remember it was over Martin Luther King and Hoover and the FBI’s treatment of King.  My brother and I finally said, sayonara, we can’t be with you on this.  Hoover didn’t like anybody.  He didn’t like JFK.  He didn’t like King.

KS:  He liked Clyde Tolson.

MR:  He liked Clyde.  Exactly.  So it was a fairly strict Catholic upbringing, but it yielded two wayward kids.  One went into the theatre. And one went into journalism. 

KS:  It really was like being preacher’s kids.

MR:  You betcha.  You betcha. 

KS:  Yet you were both creative souls – your brother and you.  How did that get into your DNA? 

MR:  My mom wanted to be an artist.  She wanted to be a painter.  She began going to Hunter when she was a young girl around 17.  That must have been in the ‘30s.  She had been from a rather coddled background.  She too was born in the Bronx to my wonderful little Cuban grandfather and her mom who was Irish.  She has one sister.  My mom was the pretty one and, as I said, the coddled one.  All of a sudden, she went from high school to Hunter.  And there were massive amounts of ambitious women from all over the place.  From all five boroughs.  She froze at all the competition.   After a couple of years of trying to negotiate Hunter, she decided to work for the telephone company.  She painted on the side for the rest of her life.  So I think we got some of our creative juju from her.  When I look back on her life, I see that she was disappointed not to have followed her own star. 

KS:  So you married your mother?

MR:  (Laughing). I didn’t marry Dave [Geiser, an artist].  Dave and I were partners.  We lived in sin for quite a long while.  We are separated now but still very close.  He has a studio nearby me in East Hampton.  He’s the father of my younger son.  And he’s also a damn good friend. I’m so glad we’ve been able to maintain a friendship.  Because we went out to East Hampton together.  People come and go from East Hampton but my old friends stay there and remain there.  For me, one of them is Dave.  And I’m one of them for him.  We’re still a part of a big extended family.

KS:  Do you talk about your older son whom you put up for adoption?

MR:  Yes.  I do.   My first son was adopted at birth.   I was obviously not prepared to become a mother at that point.  But what I didn’t realize was that there was just no way I would be able to find him again because open adoptions weren’t really done then.  My younger son – whom I adopted – is an open adoption. 

KS:  Because of your father, did you never think about aborting your pregnancy?

MR:  I wasn’t just my father.  I still at that time was young enough to believe in my Catholicism.  I was brought up in Catholic parochial schools, Catholic girls high schools, Catholic women’s college.  The idea at that point of having an abortion, I never even reflected on the morality of.

KS:  Even though I am a big advocate for a woman’s right to choose and have dominion over her own body, asking that question about your having an abortion made me uneasy.    I felt discomfort. 

MR:  That’s okay.  That’s okay.  That’s okay.

KS:  But I was uncomfortable with it.

MR:  We are uncomfortable with it.  Look, I had a friend – and a really close friend – when I was just in a horrible situation with what to do with this pregnancy.  She said, look, there are no absolutes.

KS:  How old were you?

Photograph by John Stoddart

MR:  I was 23.  My friend said that there are no absolutes about taking another person’s life.  She said that we do it in self-defense.  We do it in warfare.  People do it with euthanasia.  And these are sometimes considered self-preserving and merciful acts.  So she said that the first thing to do is to acknowledge to yourself that you feel this, that this is the taking of another life.  And now deal with it on that level.  So I said to myself, okay, don’t get lost in the thought that this is just a little mass of tissue.  But this is something that has started to become a discreet and unique human life.  She said, “Woman up to it.”   So I had to woman up to that part and then decide what to do on that basis.  And at that point I decided I couldn’t do it.   But I have always treasured that conversation with her because it has put me in a place where I absolutely can’t judge any woman for that decision.   Ever.

KS:  Did your parents know of our pregnancy?  Did you talk to them about it?

MR:  Yes.  I spent the last few weeks of my pregnancy with them.  They helped me through that along with a very good friend.  Then!  After my son was born I was torn apart because I wanted to keep him.  But I thought, I’m either going to do this or I’m not.   I’m either going to do this and not have an acting career or not.  There were so many thoughts going on in my head.  But I had this support to some degree of my parents and of some very, very close friends and of a great acting teacher who eventually helped me to get my situation under control. 

So my son was adopted.  It was not an open adoption.  And I had no way of finding him.   I wrote to the Catholic Charities though which he was adopted several times, but they couldn’t give me any identifying information about his parents or him.  So I had to wait until he turned 21.  Then I hired a detective and found him.  And that was interesting.

KS:  You had already adopted your other son?

MR:  I was in the process of that adoption.

KS:  And your older son became your younger son’s godfather?

MR:  Yes!  He became the godfather of the little one. 

KS:  This all sounds like a movie itself.

MR:  It is – kind of a crazy movie.  But nothing is neat and clean.  The two of them were very close when my younger son was a baby.  But over time my older son had issues.  My younger son had issues.  Both of them were adopted.  Both of them had adoption issues.  I was sort of the vortex in the middle between them.  I had to be very thoughtful of my older son’s adoptive parents who did not want to be included in any sort of public discussion.  And the two boys – as always happens between siblings – had a little competition for their parent.  Flowers have not picked themselves all along the way.  But we’re all in a good place now. 

Michael Urie as Arnold Beckoff and Ruehl as Ma in “Torch Song.” Photograph by Joan Marcus.

KS:  Which brings us to this play and motherhood and this character.  How did you become involved in Torch Song?   The casting of you is so different than how it was originally played by Estelle Getty – not only physically, but emotionally.  She was more of a Molly Picon-like presence. You are a revelation in this role and add a revelatory layer to this revival.

MR. I never saw the original.  But I think she was painted in more primary colors and maybe  …. I don’t want to say stereotypical ones.  I’m glad though I hadn’t seen the original.  I kind of figured out what Estelle did.  You just have had to have watched her in other things and known her to know that she was probably quite a bullet.  And really good.  But what I’ve discovered is that there’s a lot that Harvey [Fierstein] wrote in those last three scenes, where she and her son Arnold really go at it, that is even deeper than I even originally saw when I did it in the Second Stage version last year.   I think still in those last scenes there is a possibility even now to go deeper.  I think it was a little difficult for Moises [Kaufman, the director] to finally say, well, all right this is not going to be what I thought it was going to be.

KS:  And that wig!  What happens when you put on that wig? There is a certain sort of well-maintained Floridian female of-a-certain-age who has that large swarm of lacquered hair.

MR:   Yeah.  It was a really good wig when we did it off-Broadway.  But it is a really superb wig now.  It’s just a tad exaggerated.  It should be the hair of ’79 and that’s more the hair of ’69.   

Ruehl and Urie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

KS:  But that woman in ’79 probably was still wearing the style she wore in ’69.

MR:  It’s certainly big.  And there’s something about the bigness of it 

KS:  It’s a helmet with which she goes off into battle.

MR:  In a way.  It really is. 

KS:  Also, you’re not afraid of our not liking her.  She’s not really redeemed in this.  That’s what’s brave about it all – not only your brilliance in the role, but the writing of it.   She’s rather monstrous and yet you feel for her and her own grief.   She has survived such sorrow herself.  But what also moves me about your work as an actress in this is that you are not afraid of her monstrousness. 

MR:  You can’t be.  Because there is something rather monstrous about life, about human nature.  There something sort of monstrous about each and every one of us – generally kept well under control, but still.   The last scene is the hardest because it is written very sparingly and there are a lot of plot tendrils being tied up in that last scene, mine being just one of them.  But there is a sense of that if someone believes something at her core is morally wrong, she can’t stop believing that just to tie up a play neatly.  So I am glad Harvey was smart enough to do that.   But she is shaken.  She is shaken, I think, by the fact that she had no idea that this young man, her son’s previous lover, didn’t die in an automobile accident but he died the way almost the way Khashoggi died in Turkey.  He was beaten to death by a bunch of thugs.  When you think about that – having to come out onto the street and witness that immediately after it had happened.  I haven’t said much about this to Harvey or Moises, but I’ve  thought that the Post Traumatic Stress for that survivor, her son, would be intense.  So the mother finding out that her son must have gone through the horror of witnessing something this unspeakable – and she had never known – and then at the same time … well … ahh … let me say this about that: it’s my job to think about that.  It is my job to think about how conflicted that woman is in the last scene.  And because the lines are sparing there are only a certain times  to get the woman’s inner conflict out.   Some nights I’m more successful than others.  But it’s a fun thing to strive for – actually to get to that woman’s inner conflict and to let it be just, just, just glancingly triumphed by love.   There are certain ways – when she says it could be his son on the phone, when she asks if he’s in love with Ed – that she’s showing an acceptance even though her moral tuning fork is not quite sure this is right.  It’s like my dad.

KS:  I was just about to say it sounds as if you as the daughter could be fighting with your dad.

MR:  If I were to tell my dad that I had had an abortion, I don’t know what he would have done.  I don’t know what he would have done to me.  I don’t know how he would have felt he had failed. 

KS:  But you did tell him you were pregnant.

MR:  Oh, yeah.

KS:  That must have been quite a scene itself.

MR:  Yeah, that was hard.    It’s hard being a parent.  It’s hard being a kid.  Arnold’s mother believes in all that complexity, not just the monstrousness. 

An ad for “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?.”

KS:  How does she compare with what she’s dealing with regarding the son with the woman you played in The Goat and with what she’s dealing regarding her husband?

MR:  That’s a very interesting juxtaposition because what did that goat stand in for?  Edward would never give anybody an inch. 

KS:  Edward was a friend of mine.  I loved the guy.  A difficult man at times, but a sweet one.

MR:  Very sweet.  But tough.   And when it came down to his plays, he didn’t want to give you anything.  This afternoon Glenn Close and Rosemary Harris and Stockard Channing and I did an interview with The New York Times and they were talking about A Delicate Balance and that initial speech.  I told them I had done it in summer stock when I was 24. We were all saying that speech is so hard.  But always there is something at the center of the play.  In A Delicate Balance it was the terror.  In The Play About the Baby, it’s the baby.  In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s the son.  In The Goat, it’s the goat.   But there is this metaphor at the center.  So what did the goat stand for?  It obviously wasn’t about bestiality.  It was about a love of someone that was so socially and morally unacceptable – but not unacceptable by nature because nature accepts everything –  that it was a tremendous betrayal for that woman.  And I think that the mother in Torch Song feels that this is socially and morally unacceptable too – homosexuality.  She believes it is a choice.  She is pushed at the end by Arnold’s unyielding defense of himself.  It flies in the face of everything she believes in.  It would be like my saying to my father that I had an abortion and my father would then believe if I died I would be condemned to eternal damnation for that.  He certainly would have found it morally reprehensible.  Those rivers run so deep in people – like this mother that I’m playing – so that you believe that your child is going to be on very dicey moral ground for the rest of his life, that he will not have a happy life, the he will perhaps be endangered by people who are homophobic. There are a number of reasons that she is saying to him please don’t do this, please choose the family way.

KS:  It’s as if you fell in love with your mother in real life and you play your father a lot onstage. 

MR:  (Laughing)  Yes! But among educated people, for the most part, there is much less judgment around these two very important issues: abortion and homosexuality.  And yet we see now in the heart of the country there is still a very strong old-time religion that condemns both.  I don’t know quite what to make of it. But I do now it’s still the stuff of great drama. 

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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