Although her name may not sound immediately familiar, Quincy Tyler Bernstine has been a force in theater for nearly two decades. Bernstine is a veteran of more than a dozen productions in New York City, winning an Obie Award in 2009 for her affecting performance as Salima, an escaped captive in the war-torn Congo, in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined. She made her Broadway debut in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). Regionally, she has appeared with the Alabama Shakespeare Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Humana Festival at The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, among others. Her film and television credits include Manchester by the Sea, Still Alice, Rachel Getting Married, The Good Wife, and Madam Secretary.
Bernstine has distinguished herself primarily as a stalwart supporting player, but there is little doubt she has the grace and wisdom to carry a show. These qualities and many more are on full display at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, where Bernstine is currently leading the cast of a revival of Nottage’s 2004 play INTIMATE APPAREL through June 4. In the role of Esther, a strong but shy seamstress who longs for human connection in 1905 New York, Bernstine has earned the kind of rave reviews money can’t buy. The Star Ledger’s Patrick Maley called her Esther “deeply affecting,” while Allen Neuner of Out in Jersey wrote that “Bernstine blends her humanity and talent in a way only seen in actors at the peak of their talent.” In my own review of the production for Talkin’ Broadway, I described Bernstine’s performance as “finely etched and deeply moving.”
On a break between performances of INTIMATE APPAREL, I spoke with Bernstine about working with Nottage, as well as the collaboration of this production’s all-female creative team. We also discussed the nuances of acting in period dramas versus contemporary plays. These are edited excerpts.
[McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ]; May 5-June 4, 2017; mccarter.org.
Cameron Kelsall: You first played Esther in a charity reading of INTIMATE APPAREL four years ago. Did you have a feeling you would be returning to this role someday?
Quincy Tyler Bernstine: It was a part that I hoped I would return to, because it was a part I have wanted to play since I first read it, back when it was first published. But there were no promises made back then.
CK: That reading was also directed by Jade King Carroll, who directs the current production. Did she contact you to play the role, or did you go through the audition process?
QTB: I did not go through the audition process. I received a phone call in September and was offered the part. I was doing Small Mouth Sounds in New York at the time, and I didn’t accept right away. I was actually offered the part two days after my father passed away, so it took me some time to sort everything out and figure out what I was going to be doing. I believe this part was a gift from him.
CK: What draws you to the role of Esther?
QTB: She is so beautiful, inside and out. I love her resilience, and I love the fact that she refuses to settle. One of the first things out of her mouth in the first scene of the play is, “I’m not giving up so easy.” She has standards for herself, and that is something I greatly, greatly admire.
CK: This is not your first Lynn Nottage play. What is it like to interpret her work?
QTB: It’s a gift to be able to work on her plays. She is a writer who puts everything on the page. She gives actors these beautiful maps to follow, and if you just go along for the ride, you get where you need to be. She writes women that you can just dive into.
CK: Was she involved at all in this production?
QTB: No, but she did come to opening night, which was so wonderful. And she sent such sweet and encouraging emails along the way. I know I received a couple, and I’m sure Jade did as well.
CK: This production has an all-female design team. How did that influence the way this story was told?
QTB: It was incredible. I didn’t know about it until a day or two before rehearsals started. I was thrilled by it. It was so exciting to be in a room with all those women, because it is something that so rarely happens in the theater. I didn’t question it. It just felt like the way things should be. And the results are absolutely stunning.
CK: Does your process differ when you’re working on a play like INTIMATE APPAREL, which is set in 1905, as opposed to a contemporary play set in the present?
QTB: I guess the main difference is that I do try to do some research into the time period throughout the process. It really depends on the character and what I think is required. I try to be as truthful as I can in how I approach the characters that I am playing. I actually did this play years ago at the Alliance Theatre [in Atlanta], and that time I played Mayme [a client of Esther’s who works as a prostitute]. I did a lot of research about prostitutes at the turn of the century, and tried to immerse myself in the time period. But for a play like Small Mouth Sounds, there was no need to do that—I could just jump in. It really is moment to moment.
CK: Do you have a dream role?
QTB: This is my dream role! We have twelve more shows, and I plan to enjoy every single moment, because the journey has been a real blessing.