ThirdFilm and television actress Annette O’Toole stars in Wendy Wasserstein’s THIRD, continuing through June 22 at Two River Theater. (photo by Michal Daniel)

Wednesday marks the final homestretch of performances for Third, the Wendy Wasserstein play that closes out the 20th anniversary season at Two River Theater. For anyone who hasn’t caught the production under the direction of Broadway star and Middletown resident Michael Cumpsty, there are six more chances to catch the acclaimed and dynamic turn by Annette O’Toole now through Sunday, June 22. The Emmy nominated actress (for The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which also featured Cumpsty in a supporting role) and Oscar nominated composer (with her husband Michael McKean, currently on Broadway with Bryan Cranston in All the Way) stars as a middle-aged maverick professor at a Liberal Arts college, whose own bold ideas about Shakespeare’s King Lear are challenged by a young male student (Christopher Sears) who comes to represent everything the academic despises. Emily Walton, JR Horne and Amy Hohn co-star as the friends and family members in the professor’s eventful orbit.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Annette O’Toole about her role (and her time in Red Bank), with a Q&A around the corner.

redbankgreen: We’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you’re having a blast playing this rich and multi-faceted — and BIG — star-quality role here in Red Bank. Was this a show that you’d had your eye on doing for some time, and did you jump at the opportunity when you heard that it was in the works at Two River Theater? 

I didn’t know about this play at all. I was blown away when I read it!  And it so deserves a second look. There’s so much in each scene, and as much as I think I know it, I keep discovering new things.

I’ve never felt such a reception from the audience. Sometimes I have to push down my joy, at having such great material to work with! I love it that (Wasserstein) made it about a person who’s at that stage of her life and her career. There are so few great parts for women my age, that are this complex and interesting and rich. Even Shakespeare doesn’t have a lot of really great older women parts — I would love to do Gertrude in Hamlet, or the mother in Coriolanus.

You know, you reach a certain point — just when you’re thinking to yourself, I have it all at my fingertips; I’ve lived enough life experience; I can do this — when you’re basically going to be cast as the mother…or the grandmother!

Your character Laurie is not necessarily an easy person to like — even with the understanding that comes from the audience being aware of all the pressures coming at her from all sides; how she feels a lot of responsibility toward the people in her life who are sick… 

Every relationship in her life is in flux — from her friend having cancer, to her father’s condition, and her daughter leaving home. On top of that, her husband’s not even there…he gets mentioned, but there’s obviously nothing there to hold onto. Then there’s the menopause issue…and there’s another conflict; her issue with the Bush administration, with the war. It’s still a current thing, too, twelve years after it was written. So she’s at a point where she though she was the changer…but she either has to make some big changes herself, or die.

Speaking of having to make changes, are you staying locally in the Red Bank area while you’re so heavily involved in THIRD?

I had plans to go back and forth to the city, but I’ve taken them up on staying in town, in a beautiful apartment right on the river. I segue from the theater to the apartment, staying close to the other actors. We have a posse; we’ll make our way down the alleyway after we leave the theater, and perhaps someone will break into a selection from West Side Story.

This has been such a demanding role — I have to carefully figure how to best use my energy; I have to really think about when and what I’m going to eat, and how I can sneak a drink of water at the side of the stage…I’ll have a tablespoon of water; I take it like a shot!

Have you been able to slip away at all and see your husband doing his J. Edgar thing on Broadway, while all this is going on? And has he been able to catch your performance down in Red Bank? 

The last two Sundays, as soon as I was finished I hopped on the train…and it’s great that we’re right there by the station…to get back to town and have dinner with Michael. His show opened before we did, and continues for a few more days after we close…he did manage to see one of our student matinees in Red Bank.

Well, you’ve had another Michael in your life for these recent weeks — your director, Michael Cumpsty. How’s it been collaborating with him on this character…were you guys really acquainted with each other from the time when you were both cast in the KENNEDYS miniseries?

I don’t even recall if we were in a scene together, but I have a memory of him, so handsome in his RAF officer’s uniform; looking like Rhett Butler…well, like Rhett Butler if he was in the RAF!

Michael Cumpsty is just so meticulous, so amazing…he’s completely immersed himself in this project, he sets the tone so beautifully and I’m so glad he’s guiding me through this. He’s in every single moment of this play. He’s so prepared, that he went around to all these New England colleges, and sent me back pictures of things like the bulletin board at the English department; the color of the wood on the walls, the light through a window.

Two River Theater has promoted this production in part by mentioning the fact that you’re an Oscar nominee. But not a lot of people realize that your nomination came as a songwriter, for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” which you and your husband composed for Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara to sing in the Christopher Guest mockumentary A MIGHTY WIND.

That song was written to do what a song in a movie used to do, rather than be this big anthemic thing over the credits. It almost didn’t make it into the picture; we even wrote an alternate song that was more of a “Leaving on a Jet Plane” kind of folk pop song, but we felt really strongly about it…Michael came to me with the information that Christopher wanted a song that really summed up the characters Mitch and Mickey; really got to the heart of who they were and what their relationship was…and it had to have something to do with a kiss. So we created this wonderful song, in which everything led up to the question of whether they would actually have that kiss. They did it so beautifully on the Oscars show, but it was the Lord of the Rings theme that won, I think.

You know, ever since we got that nomination, Michael and I are now in the musician’s section of the Academy — we vote on nominations for the various songs. These days they’ll send you a CD of all the songs, and you’ll get to listen to them closely — but when we were nominated, they were still doing it by having all the eligible voters go to a screening room and watch dozens of film clips featuring the songs. It was easy to miss things — So many people came up to me after that Oscar show and told me how they really wanted to vote for our song; how it just didn’t get noticed in between everything else that was going on.

Remaining performances of Third are June 18 at 7 pm, June 19-20 at 8 pm, June 21 at 3 and 8 pm, and June 22 at 3 pm. Tickets ($20 – $65) can be reserved right here.