My hand was hovering over the phone I was going to use to oh-so-casually call Carol Kane — much in the same way I’d call my mom or, say, my plumber. Except I was nervous, and that was weird.
You see, I’m not really the star-struck type. I think “regular” people are just as important as celebrities. I’ve never hosted an Oscar party and I wouldn’t know a designer gown if it mugged me in a remarkably well-lit alley. I respect talent and, sure, I like a little gossip now and then — but I wouldn’t sell my first-born child to watch Matthew McConaughey eat a pastrami sandwich or anything.
But this was Carol Kane — the dizzyingly strange, hilarious-yet-oddly-touching-Bill-Murray-smacking-Simka-Dahblitz-Gravas of my childhood (gasp!). I was 7 when I started looking forward to watching Taxi (still my favorite sitcom of all time) every week, and it wasn’t just because there was a boy at school I had a desperate crush on who shared his name with Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway), one of the cabbies. I loved them all, including Latka’s (the late, great Andy Kaufman) high-strung wife, Simka, portrayed with Emmy-Award-winning brilliance by Carol Kane.
It stands to reason, then, that I was pleasantly surprised to learn Kane is directing Belfast Blues — a tragic and funny tale of one woman’s inspiring triumph over adversity — presented by the Rubicon Theatre Company through Sept. 13. I was to interview Kane, the woman who played opposite Bill Murray as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged; the actress nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Hester Street. I would have the profoundly unnerving honor of speaking to the unspeakably talented Ms. Carol Kane … but, what if she was a horrible wretch of a woman completely unlike the person she appears to be onscreen? Or worse, what if she hated my guts?
Fortunately, neither turned out to be the case — though I did gush shamefully and with pathetic, fawning abandon. I’m not going to lie to you: I was a little disgusting, but Kane is a thoughtful, intelligent lady who, though presently performing on Broadway as Madame Morrible in the musical, Wicked, is clearly invested in Belfast Blues, playwright and actress Geraldine Hughes’s personal tale of war-torn Belfast. It’s also Kane’s debut as a stage director.
“It’s just such a specific truth,” Kane says of the play, “the journey of this one girl who grows up with war and deals with war every day, and then blossoms into this vital person and saves herself.”
Having been raised in abject poverty in Northern Ireland, Hughes conveys her experiences via her one-woman show, in which she portrays more than 20 colorful characters that range from her parents and neighbors to her younger self. “It’s amazing to see this child grow up in these circumstances,” Kane says. “She had this extraordinary will to survive — not just to exist, but to have a full life.”
Kane met Hughes when Hughes was a nanny for the children of some friends. She was later struck by Hughes’s talent the first time she saw her on stage. “I was shocked, just bowled over,” Kane says. “She’s someone who, once you meet her, if your eyes are open, you know she’s on a journey that you have to get behind. Once you see her on stage, there’s just no question there’s only one of her.”
Kane was first introduced to Belfast Blues when Hughes visited her at her Los Angeles home to read an early draft of the piece for her. “It was so funny, so raw and special,” Kane says. So Kane followed the project, made a few notes at the request of Hughes, who ultimately asked Kane to direct the play in New York.
“It’s a complete collaboration,” says Kane of her partnership with Hughes. “I don’t sit there and say, ‘Do this and do that.’ The piece is her … I’m just a spoke in the wheel, so to speak.”
Another spoke in that wheel is Jonathan Christman, the scenic, lighting and projection designer for the show, which incorporates slides that help Hughes tell her story. “There are slides in the piece that tell stories about Belfast,” Kane says. “They have a voice in the piece.”
During the show, set during the 1970s and 1980s, Hughes gracefully transitions between characters, some of whom resonate so well with audiences that they’re recognizable as separate people when Hughes takes individual bows for each. “She’s playing all the significant people in her life,” Kane says. “You really don’t have the sensation of watching a one-woman show. You see them all.”
Addressing the differences between screen and stage work, Kane admits that each medium has strengths and weaknesses. “The most important thing is that the writing is good — and if you get a good director, you really lucked out.”