By Brian Robin
Making a Strong Return
Shannon Cochran played Regina Giddens in Goodman Theatre’s 2015 production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, so she has experience in half of Voices of America’s strong, independent woman exacta.
As for the other half, playing Toni Lafayette in Appropriate? Well, Cochran never played the female lead in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dark comedy before now. But she’s quite familiar with the role.
“I know what it’s like to be this person,” she said about Toni Lafayette. “I’m the oldest daughter in my family and my family refers to me often as ‘the Park Boss.’ My dad brought that up. They call me the Park Boss because I’m trying to organize things. I’m trying to make everyone’s time together comfortable and all planned out. I’m trying to run ahead of problems that might crop up and take care of them before they become major.
“Everyone accuses me of bossing people around and being a bossy pants and know-it-all. All I’m trying to do is love them and make their lives a little easier, because nobody else is doing it. I’m the one who shows up and that’s all I think about Toni. She shows up. She’s trying. She’s not succeeding all the time, but she’s trying very hard to love these people and get them through this particular situation.”
The “particular situation” Cochran now finds herself in is a demanding one—playing two vibrant, meaty roles that define strong, independent women in SCR’s Voices of America. The Little Foxes and Appropriate alternate performances beginning Jan. 28 and concluding Feb. 26. Both shows perform daily on weekends, meaning Cochran is playing the Park Boss eight performances a week.
It’s a full plate. Cochran said her experience playing Regina Giddens at the Goodman lessened the burden considerably.
“My skills of memorization are still intact. It came back remarkably fast,” she said. “That’s not just a testament to me, but a testament to how smart Lillian Hellman’s writing it. Everything follows beautifully.”
The same could be said for Cochran, who was a theatre mainstay in Chicago for more than 20 years. She earned nine Joseph Jefferson Award nominations along with her 1988 Best Supporting Actress in a Musical win for playing Gladys Bump in Pal Joey and a 2014 win for The Dance of Death at the Writers Theatre. Cochran also won an Obie Award and a TheatreWorld Award for her role in Bug at the Gate Theatre in London and the Barrow Street Theatre off-Broadway.
Cochran performed in the national tour of August: Osage County, which earned her Washington, D.C.'s Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Non-Resident Production.
You may recognize Cochran from her role as the mysterious Anna Morgan in the 2002 horror film The Ring. You may have seen the talented, versatile actor on television in everything from “NCIS” to “Desperate Housewives.”
Or you saw her previous SCR roles—as Evelyn in System Wonderland (2007) and Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2017), where she played alongside her The Little Foxes cohort Bill Geisslinger. He returns to SCR as Horace Giddens.
“I have very fond feelings about both of those plays. They were dedicated little pieces that the audience got to really see close-up,” she said. “I’ve never been on the ‘big stage’ (the Segerstrom Stage) before. I’ve seen a lot of plays there and been super-impressed the way the proscenium presents itself. But I’ve never been on that stage, so this is a new experience for me.”
And Cochran is savoring every moment, from a photo shoot she did for Orange Coast Magazine for an upcoming story, to reuniting with Geisslinger, to taking the stage with fellow SCR veterans Tessa Auberjonois, Jamison Jones and Lea Coco, among others in the talented cast.
Yes, she said that her voice is tired at the end of the day. But the demands of mastering two roles, of long rehearsal days split between the two plays, of tackling a role like Regina Giddens, played by Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway and Bette Davis in an eight-time Academy Award-nominated movie, isn’t an imposition to Cochran.
Cochran half-joked while comparing playing Regina to her numerous appearances on various Star Trek vehicles. She said she received numerous compliments from “Trekkies” for playing strong women.
“I think the same thing is going to be said about both of these roles,” she said. ““Thank you for bringing such powerful women to the front of the stage.’ I’m not a raging feminist, but now, it’s time to hear me roar. That’s OK. I’ll take that.”
No, none of this is a demand or a burden. It’s a blessing.
“I take this as the biggest gift of the year,” she said. “This is such a treat for me and I figure for two months, I can devote all my time to this. I’m so grateful to have that and I don’t think about it (fatigue). The work carries me. I see working both plays as getting on a slalom run at the top of the hill and you just ride the thing down the hill.
“Once you get going, you’re off. That’s the magic of theatre. … What actor wouldn’t be thrilled to be in this position? There wasn’t a chance I would have turned this down.”