Wheeling native Michelle Duffy certainly has invested “sweat equity” into her career, which has thus far spanned close to three decades in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and now, Pittsburgh, where she is making her Pittsburgh Public Theater debut in “Sweat.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage opened Friday, Nov. 16, after a week of previews.
Duffy plays Jessie, a blue-collar functioning alcoholic in Reading, Pa. She and her friends work at Olstead’s Steel Tubing by day and drink — and laugh and cry and fight and dance and celebrate — at the bar across the street by night.
When their work world goes from orderly to chaotic, life goes haywire.
This play has been called the explanation of why Donald Trump got elected president, Duffy said. It takes place mostly in 2000. The North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — had been enacted, leading to labor problems throughout the country, Duffy explained. Mill owners were locking out their workers, which certainly affected people as individuals, their relationships, their lives and their livelihoods. We learn more about those effects in scenes set in 2008.
“It’s a beautifully funny, poignant, heartbreaking look at these people … in a very human way.”
ART IMITATES LIFE
And if the characters in “Sweat” want to know how to deal with uncertainty and turmoil, just ask an actor.
“What’s interesting about this play, for me especially, and this character, is these are all people who have been living their lives a certain way, they thought they had this security … then the whole thing is thrown into chaos. … You put in your time, your loyalty, and you got nothing to show for it. These are blue-collar workers.”
As an actor, Michelle can relate. “Here we are in our lives — nothing is certain. You don’t have that paycheck. You don’t have that constant security that you think these [characters in ‘Sweat’] have. They may not have these wild artistic lives or get to act on their creativity, but they have the security, and these are people we envy and, yet, they’re thrown into this insecurity. And if they want to know how to deal with that life, come talk to an actor. I can teach you how. … We’re portraying these people that are going through what we constantly go through … I can relate very deeply to this. I feel like a blue-collar actor,” she said.
“Sunday in the Park With George,” is another show Michelle relates to on a personal level. One of her favorite musicals and a show she did about 20 years ago, it is based on the life of artist Georges Seurat, and what he gave up because of his obsession with pointillism, and what it means to sacrifice for art.
“The score is, to me, flawless but also so emotional. … And it’s so poignant to me now — snatches of the score keep on going through my head because of where I am now in my life. Now, being where the George character is now, being betwixt and between, do I keep going forward with this? How do I reconnect with this? What’s it all about? … All this existential stuff you get into at this point in your life as an artist. It’s really, really powerful.”
Those are questions actors ask themselves each time they reach a milestone, Michelle believes.
She considers the last 30 years quite successful and counts among her favorite roles that of Dot/Marie in “Sunday in the Park With George” at Palo Alto, Calif.’s TheatreWorks. Other roles of note are the titular role in “Hedda Gabler” at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre and Diana in “Next to Normal” at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, Mich. But she’d name her “Tennessee Williams’ women … Maggie, Stella and Catherine, among my most satisfying roles I’ve played and experiences I’ve had.”
While New York is wonderful, of course — “Who doesn’t want to work in Broadway, as far as the paycheck and pension and prestige, especially if you’re in something that you really believe in. … (But) I enjoy being in another city, I enjoy the intimacy of telling stories in specific communities and getting to learn about the community while doing it.”
There are a myriad of cities she’s settled herself into while pursuing her career. She pointed to Kalamazoo, a small, vibrant town that reminded her of where Wheeling is heading now; and Minneapolis, another thriving community; Berkeley; and San Francisco.
A LEAP OF FAITH
About six years ago, after enjoying many years based in California, Duffy took a big career leap and headed back east for the Broadway production of — perhaps not coincidentally — “Leap of Faith.”
“I certainly got evidence from the universe that it was a good move at the time,” she said. Her years in New York were quite productive, with several theater productions (the Off-Broadway “Heathers, the Musical,” some workshops and pre-Broadway jobs) along with commercials and “more television than I had been doing in L.A.” (“The Good Wife,” “Succession,” “Elementary”).
It also came at a time when her dad, Joe Duffy, was ailing, and her East Coast life allowed the opportunity to spend time with him.
“My whole family really — I had been away from them for so long. … That was another big reason, another selling point for moving back east — that I’d have faster, easier access, which I’m really grateful for. … I could get home in seven hours, and I did. I came home a good bit, and I’m grateful I was able to be here more often for him.” He passed away in 2014.
PITTSBURGH PUBLIC THEATER DEBUT
Getting the part in “Sweat” was another sign from the universe that acting is what she’s supposed to be doing at this point in her life, Michelle believes.
“It’s a play I really loved and was intrigued by and moved by and the fact that it was at the Public … I’ve been looking for a way to start getting in the auditioning circles in Pittsburgh so I could work more locally so I could be around my folks. … so the getting of this job was a godsend. The actual doing the job … this is a beast of a piece. It’s been challenging.”
Michelle is no stranger to Pittsburgh theater. She launched her career in “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and soon after played Sister Robert Anne in “Nunsense” at St. Vincent Theater in Latrobe, Pa., and earned her equity card.
And because she loves what’s happening at the Public, she’s pleased to be back in Pittsburgh.
“I love this ensemble. They’re a great group of people. I love the director [Justin Emeka]. I think he’s marvelous, and he has sort of an interesting hands-off way of working. Marya [Sea Kaminski] is the new artistic director … the energy she is bringing to her first year is beautifully human. She’s come to a lot of rehearsals. She’s very approachable, she’s got a spirit about her, an energy about her, that is nurturing, involved and interested. … It seems to me she really wants to cater more to local talent, build from the community.
“The process has been challenging, but everything around it has been uplifting. I see things around me that give me hope and encouragement, that people are still trying to make good theater for art’s sake.”
And now that “Sweat” rehearsals are over, and the show is up and running, she’s looking forward to investing some time in her surroundings — getting to know Pittsburgh better and visiting family in Wheeling.
CULTIVATED IN WHEELING, W.VA.
The arts and culture of Wheeling were important to Michelle from a young age.
“I always felt I was safe to explore. I felt encouraged. I felt there were great artistic opportunities for me as a young person,” she said.
She participated in Oglebay Institute’s Parcel Players youth theater one summer and took classes from theater legend Hal O’Leary, “which I loved… and it lit the fire early.”
Michelle remembers acting class in junior high with Mr. Martin and dance classes with Mrs. Fassig; piano lessons and youth orchestra; and choir singing with Mr. DiLorenzo.
And then Bill Cornforth and Fran Schoolcraft came into her life.
“Once I got to [Wheeling Park High School], it was really honed. It was interesting because Fran and Bill were like totally yin and yang. Fran was more of a taskmaster — she’s more from discipline and structure and rules. And Bill is more kind of free flowing. … That’s one of the greatest things I got out of my Park education — learning those two approaches. I lean more toward the free flowing … Fran and I would butt heads in that way, but at the same time, Fran honestly was responsible for me going to college. I am indebted to her for the rest of my life.”
When Michelle was not accepted to her one-and-only college choice, Carnegie Mellon University, after a “kick-ass audition,” she abandoned the thought of college.
Schoolcraft said “no” to that plan, and personally contacted “every school within a 200-mile radius that had a theater program, specifically a musical theater program — unbeknownst to me.”
It was late in the application process — May or early June — but her devoted teacher pressed on and procured about half a dozen auditions for Michelle, “that my mother [Laurel Myers] and she dragged me to, kicking and screaming.”
Michelle settled on Kent State, which had a musical theater degree — as opposed to many schools that had a theater major with a music minor.
“They kind of accepted me on the spot, and suddenly I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go to school. I had no clue of all that had been done for me, and I still don’t feel like I ever thanked Fran. … I still feel like I owe her. I owe both of them so much. … They’re both [Cornforth and Schoolcraft] coming to the show. That level of support and love — that’s good stuff going on.”
LIFE IMITATES ART
Along with great support from teachers, Michelle had a huge family surrounding her while growing up.
“I have a big family, and my dad had nine brothers and a sister. I have 26 cousins just on one side of the family, and grew up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins around. … The network of family … and growing up in Wheeling was amazing.”
Even now, members of her family are involved in the city’s resurgence. “My cousin Derrick [McKee] — we call him the mayor of Wheeling. And Sean Duffy [of Ohio County Public Library] … I’m amazed by him,” she said. “I’m glad to see that family members of mine are part of that movement. … [And I’m glad] to see the music scene is still vibrant.” The music scene was important to Michelle; in the early 1980s, she was a member (and first female vocalist) of Crystal Ball, a popular music group. Her bandmates included Tim Seidler, Kevin Brosh, Tom Freeland, and the now-late John Green and Shawn Thomas.
Right now, she’s looking forward to being close to family. While she loved her time in so many cities across the country, she also realizes she missed a lot.
“I missed the mundane of going to the mall with my mom and my aunts, I missed so many milestones like weddings and seeing kids growing up. There’s a sense of nostalgia, a longing because time is precious. … I missed being able to participate in the day-to-day.
“Artistic life is so self-involved — in good and bad ways. But it’s like you’re your own thing, your own business, your own self-contained entity. So much selfishness has to happen because you have to be available and improvisational in your own life. No one understands it. It’s wonderful in so many ways … you’re your unicorn in a way, you get this beautiful thing of going from show to show, where you get this instant family and you get this tribe.”
Happily for Michelle, the theater has been another supportive “family” for decades, as well as providing a fulfilling career.
“The beautiful thing about theater, every night it’s a do-over. It’s not a different script, but it’s a different audience, which has a different energy. You get to start from point A and get to point B, and it’s a different journey every night. You have a chance to do it again. … It’s you every night — you and the audience. … You’re part of the relationship, and there’s nothing like that.”
Like family. Like love. Like life.
There goes that art imitating life again. Or vice versa.
• Don’t miss Michelle Duffy and the rest of the accomplished cast in “Sweat,” on stage at the O’Reilly Theater, home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, through Dec. 9. For tickets call 412-316-1600 or visit ppt.org.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.