MARY MCDONNELL: Stands With the Pioneers

Susan King

May 12, 1991

Article taken from Los Angeles Times

Mary McDonnell has gone from the plains of South Dakota to the plains of Nebraska.

The 37-year-old actress won acclaim and an Oscar nomination for her performance in Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” as Stands With a Fist, a white woman raised by the Sioux.

Now McDonnell is starring as another 19th-Century pioneer woman in PBS’ “American Playhouse” presentation of “O Pioneers!,” airing Wednesday.

“O Pioneers!” is an adaptation with music of Willa Cather’s novel about immigrant settlers on the Great Plains of Nebraska during the 19th Century. McDonnell plays Alexandra Bergson, a pioneer Swedish woman who, as a young woman, inherits acres of farmland after her father dies and turns the property into one of the biggest, most successful farms in Nebraska.

McDonnell’s husband, Randle Mell, plays the immigrant Alexandra secretly loves.

McDonnell, whose next feature project is the contemporary comedy-drama “Grand Canyon,” with Kevin Kline and Steve Martin, talked about “O Pioneers!” with Susan King.

You’ve been out on the prairie a lot these days between “Dances With Wolves” and “O Pioneers!” Were you involved with “Pioneers” before “Dances”?

I actually did it originally in a workshop right before “Dances.” A week after I wrapped “Dances” I went to do a full theatrical production (at the Huntington Theatre Center in Boston) of “O Pioneers!”

American Playhouse taped two live performances (at Huntington). It is a lot of pressure. Anything could go wrong at any minute and you couldn’t do another take.

I found the actors instinctively altered their choices just a bit for the camera. We didn’t have to play to the camera, but you are aware of the fact that something that you might do which could be very, very large (for the stage) won’t necessarily translate on camera. I think we all instinctively entered into more subtle territory at moments.

But from the beginning it was the kind of production that the director, Kevin Kuhlke, (playwright) Darrah Cloud and producer Michael Maso felt had to be a very subtle theatrical experience to remain true to Willa.

She is a very quiet kind of writer. She’s brilliant, I think. I think she’s the cat’s P.J.’s. I really do. I think we should have all children in schools read Willa Cather. We learn so much about the history of our country in a very organic way. I think she really shines a light on a lot of our past that we need to know about. She holds the land in such honor inside of her.

I started to understand the reality of pioneering through her writing because she is able to get into the heart and soul of the day-to-day life and that kind of isolation. I really understood the beauty of that as well as the hardship.

Did Cather’s writing make it easier to get a grasp on your character of Alexandra?

Alexandra–I wish every actress could play her. And there are are quite a few of us playing her now. Jessica Lange is going to play her (for an upcoming “Hallmark Hall of Fame” version of “O Pioneers!”). I think that you can’t exhaust Alexandra. Do you know what I am saying? She is so complicated and so full of life. There is just so much there to be explored in Alexandra. She taught me a great deal.

I didn’t have a grasp on her immediately. I was fascinated by her and immediately respected her and sort of fell in love with her. It took me a while to understand her combination of vulnerability and strength.

It wasn’t until I understood that as a child Alexandra had been handed a legacy and committed in her heart a responsibility to that legacy. Once I understood that as being her top layer, then I understood the fragility of a woman who didn’t really have a chance to develop.

Did portraying Stands With A Fist alter your interpretation of Alexandra from the original workshop?

She changed because I had changed. I had a much more organic awareness of what’s it like to be day-in-and-day out on the land. Instead of a romantic idea in my head, I could feel it in my bones. And I understand why one would hold that responsibility for an entire lifetime because it’s worth it. And that really helped me a great deal.

I think when I was doing the workshop I had a lot of ideas and then, after having spent months on the prairie and having gone through that very earthy experience of “Dances With Wolves,” the ideas weren’t necessary. The land does get inside of you.

They fed off of each other because they were very strong in a different sense. Alexandra carries an aloneness with her responsibility and Stands With a Fist was surrounded by loving, wonderful people.

You co-star with your husband, Randle Mell, in “O Pioneers!” Have you worked a lot together?

We worked several times, actually. We have done tons of workshops together. We did “Weekend Near Madison” off-Broadway and John Patrick Shanley’s play “Savage in Limbo,” off-Broadway. It’s great. Actually, we have been asked to do a lot of plays together, but it hasn’t been the right time or the right material.

Have your life and career changed because of “Dances”?

I wouldn’t say that it has totally changed, but it certainly has accelerated. It has really expanded and it feels great.

“O Pioneers!” on “American Playhouse” airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET and Friday at 9 p.m. on KPBS.

Script developed by Never Enough Design