Posted by Hannah Miller
This week’s theatre artist is the internationally renowned, Academy Award-winning film actress MERYL STREEP. This past Sunday, June 22, she celebrated her 59th birthday. Prior to her success in Hollywood, she was a highly acclaimed 26-year-old newcomer on Broadway. She thrilled her first NYC audience at Lincoln Center in the 1975 revival of the classic backstage comedy, Trelawny of the ‘Wells’.
Her Word of the Week is SQUALL, a verb she uttered and ably demonstrated during the 47 performances of her auspicious stage debut on the Great White Way.
Born with the given name Mary Louise, Streep’s first love was music. She made her vocal debut as a child singing O Holy Night in flawless French, perhaps foretelling her acclaimed ability to master any dialect. At an early age, she made plans to become an opera star and started vocal training at age 12.
As a student, she excelled academically but lacked confidence in social settings. This changed when she received a standing ovation as Marian the Librarian in her high school production of The Music Man. It was then that she “stopped feeling dorky” and was able to think of herself as a genuine performer. With new found self-assurance, she continued to act in many high school productions and ended up being named Homecoming Queen her senior year.
She studied theatre and English at Vassar, graduating in 1971. Wanting to continue her education, she enrolled in the Yale School of Drama and appeared in over 30 productions at Yale Repertory Theatre. She graduated with an MFA in theatre in 1975.
Her first big break came when she joined Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Here, she had the opportunity to appear on Broadway not only in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, but also, two months after Trelawny closed, in a double-bill of Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (pictured to the right) and Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays. Her roles in these two plays couldn’t have been more different. Critics commended her versatility, and she was nominated for the 1976 Tony Award as Best Featured Actress.
She made her television debut in 1977 in Secret Service, a filming of her next Broadway production, launching her extremely successful career in Hollywood. (Secret Service is a Civil War era spy story set in Richmond. Theatre IV produced the stage version of Secret Service in the Empire in the early 90s.) In 1978, Streep won an Emmy Award for her performance in Holocaust, a miniseries.
Moving on to the big screen, Streep played small but memorable parts in Julia (appearing with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave) and The Deer Hunter (appearing with Robert DeNiro). For The Deer Hunter, she earned her first of 14 Oscar nominations. She’s won twice. Subsequent film and television projects have included Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Out of Africa (1985), The Hours (2002), Angels in America (2003 - and yes, that's Meryl in one of her Angels roles pictured above and to the left), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Mamma Mia! (now playing), Doubt (opening later this year), and 47 other productions.
First produced in 1898, Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ is a comedy about how English theatre changed during the 1860s, leaving behind over-the-top melodramas and farces in favor of more realistic “cup and saucer” dramas, paving the path for Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. During the final three decades of the 19th Century and the first three decades of the 20th, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, author of Trelawny and many other hit plays, was among London’s five most successful and popular playwrights. He was a leader in bringing realism to popularity in England, and is best known today for his two masterworks, Trelawny and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
Near the end of Trelawny, Streep’s character Imogen (an actress and aspiring producer) speaks this line in the play within the play: “Miss Harrington, bring your work indoors and hear me SQUALL,” an allusion to the melodramatic acting style being lovingly satirized.
Until scanning through Trelawny, I had always thought of a SQUALL as a storm. When appearing as a noun, that’s exactly what it is—“a sudden strong wind or short violent storm.” However, when used as a verb, SQUALL refers to a human action or trait that is storm-like. Its definition is “to scream or cry loudly and harshly.”
Whether squalling, whispering or murmuring gently in a newly mastered accent, Meryl Streep is believed by many to be the finest film actress of her generation. It would be wonderful to see her return once again to her Broadway roots. Until then, we can seek out the NYC performances of her look-alike daughter, actress Mamie Gummer (pictured to the right), who recently made her Broadway debut in the Roundabout’s revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.