Sara Morsey, a member of the Hippodrome Acting Company, continues a string of memorable performances by playing Ruth Steiner in Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, which begins this week.
During the past year, Hippodrome Theatre audiences have had the pleasure of watching Sara Morsey play a manic and hapless homebody in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a macabre and amusing hunchback in All Girl Frankenstein and a witty and spirited ghost in A Christmas Carol.
In fact, there are few roles Morsey hasn’t played at the Hippodrome and many other regional theaters during an acting career that has spanned three decades.
“Sara is very chameleon-like,” said Lauren Warhol Caldwell, the Hippodrome’s artistic director. “She’s able to transform into many kinds of people. Her characters are always memorable.”
Beginning this week, Morsey inhabits the world of Ruth Steiner, a distinguished short-story writer and college professor who guards her privacy in Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories. It is the Hippodrome’s first production of 2016 and promises to leave theatregoers spellbound.
Margulies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Dinner With Friends, but Morsey said that Collected Stories is her personal favorite.
“He is a brilliant writer and it kind of takes that because the play is about writing,” Morsey said. “When a writer writes about writing, he better damn well know what he’s doing, and he [Margulies] certainly does.”
The two-person play also stars Juliana Davis as Lisa Morrison, a graduate student who is tutored by Ruth in the older woman’s third-floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their tutor/pupil relationship gets off to a shaky start.
“You’re not who I thought you were,” Ruth states. “You don’t particularly look like your story.”
When that awkwardness subsides, bubbly Lisa tells Ruth, “Studying with you is like a religious experience.”
Davis has a similar respect for the woman who plays Ruth.
“It’s an absolute dream working with Sara,” she said.
In Collected Stories, the two characters become friends over a six-year period until Lisa unwittingly betrays Ruth, leading to a riveting climax.
This will be the first time Morsey has performed as Ruth at the Hippodrome. However, she has performed the role previously at the Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers and at the Banyan Theatre Company in Sarasota. You could say that Morsey knows her character like an old friend.
“Ruth is brilliant, acerbic and witty” Morsey said. “She’s not like me. She’s a little more—oh, I don’t know–self-contained, I think. Of course she’s like me because I’m playing her. You can’t play anything you’re not like. When actors tell you ‘I’m not like that,’ they’re lying. It’s in there somewhere. Maybe it’s not a part they use, but they’re like that!”
In a recent interview on the front steps of the Hippodrome, Morsey sipped Starbucks and spoke about her acting career as well as her other creative pursuits.
Morsey, a member of the Hippodrome Acting Company and Actors’ Equity Association, just ended a four-week run of A Christmas Carol on Dec. 19. She appeared in seven performances a week despite having a bug toward the end that almost wiped her out.
“It was awful, but it had to run its course,” she said. “A couple of days my voice was so low—and I was miked—that the first time I spoke, the kids would go ‘Whoa!’ It sounded odd. A lot of performances I had to experiment. I would go high and it would not be there, but at least I had a voice.”
Before A Christmas Carol wrapped up, Morsey was already rehearsing for Collected Stories. Even that was tricky because her co-star, Davis, was still performing in The 39 Steps at American Stage in St. Petersburg. (Last summer, Davis had made her Hippodrome debut in Honky Tonk Angels.)
Early in her career, Morsey never imagined acting in Florida. She was a Midwest girl, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, before heading to Chicago, where she worked in regional theater during the ’80s.
In 1991, a friend of Morsey’s had an opportunity to direct the U.S. premiere of Nicholas Wright’s Mrs. Klein at American Stage. The director called Morsey, invited her to Florida and gave her a role in the “really, really dark and interesting story” about a female psychoanalyst in the time of Sigmund Freud.
“I couldn’t believe that anyplace in Florida would be doing that play,” Morsey said. “I just fell in love with theater down there, and they kept inviting me back.”
Eventually, Morsey settled south of Sarasota, in Nokomis. Her first play at the Hippodrome was Lost in Yonkers, directed by Caldwell, more than 20 years ago. Then she was invited back for Earthly Possessions, and Morsey realized she had found a new theatrical home.
“Lauren is such a wonderful director,” Morsey said. “She’s the reason I kept coming back to the Hippodrome.”
Collected Stories is a play driven by the extensive, often intense dialogue between the two characters. Because of a truncated rehearsal period, the cast took only one day off during the holidays. The strong rapport between Morsey, Davis and Caldwell made for a smooth process.
“The schedule was a little odd, but we’re in good shape,” Morsey said. “You always wish you had another week for rehearsal. Or another week, or another week. I always wish that. You just have to go with where you are.”
As an adult, all I’ve ever wanted for Christmas is to be working.
— Sara Morsey
The actor said she didn’t mind working through the holidays, including a press run on New Year’s Eve.
“I don’t really enjoy the holidays other than what we do here,” she said. “As a kid, of course, I loved it. As an adult, all I’ve ever wanted for Christmas is to be working. Consequently, I quit spending Christmas with any type of related family years ago. Of course, you’re always with family if you’re in the theatre.”
Morsey keeps an active schedule. When Collected Stories ends on Jan. 31, she’ll head to Fort Myers and appear in Becky’s New Car, a comedy opening Feb. 15 at Florida Repertory Theatre, where she is also a Company Member.
When Morsey does get a break from the stage, she stays busy in her home studio—actually a sound-proof closet—recording audiobooks. It’s something she has done since graduate school in Louisville, when she was hired to record books for the American Printing House for the Blind.
“There were only three such studios in the country at the time, when it was old reel-to-reel tapes,” she said. “When you made corrections, you had to cut them into the actual tape. I felt really lucky to get the job when I was in grad school, and I recorded for about three years there and probably did about 50 titles.”
Thanks to her diverse language skills and command of dialects, Morsey now has more than 100 titles to her credit, from novels to self-help books. She has narrated more than 30 downloadable titles for Audible, including Felicia Andrews’ unabridged Riverrun, a 372-page book that took Morsey 16 hours and 22 minutes to record.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “I’ve done more audio books than voice-over work. What I would love to do is videogames, playing a character. And I would like to do animated work. That really interests me.”
Morsey is a visual artist, too. Her paintings and pieces by fellow workers were recently on display in the Hippodrome Gallery. Illustrations by Morsey appear in A Knowing, a book written by fellow Hippodrome actor and longtime friend Nell Page.
And then there’s Morsey’s film work. She had a role as a nursing home director in the 1999 film First of May starring Julie Harris and has appeared in a handful of independent films.
But it’s the theatre that gives Morsey the most satisfaction. She has now appeared in at least 80 Hippodrome productions over the years. Some of her favorite roles have been as Alcandre the magician in The Illusion and as Maria Callas in Master Class. She also loved doing The Glass Menagerie, To Kill a Mockingbird and “that Scottish play” she could not utter (Macbeth).
And to think that Morsey studied to be a dental hygienist in college before turning to acting. But she prefers to not talk about personal stuff.
“I don’t really like people to know about me that much, except I’d love for them to see me act,” she said.
Morsey is particularly fond of works by Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Deborah Zoe Laufer.
“The plays I love are the ones that are a little bit off the beaten path that tell a story of everyday people running their lives and having huge epiphanies just within themselves that change the whole world for them and maybe for someone else.”
Caldwell said Morsey commands attention on stage in whatever role she plays.
“Sara was born a leading lady,” Caldwell said. “She’s tall, she’s beautiful, she’s statuesque, but she can also play a character role. The universe has been good to her.”
— Noel Leroux
Hippodrome State Theatre
25 SE 2nd Place
Gainesville, FL 32601
Box office: 352 375-4477
Seven performances a week through Jan. 31