Bebe Neuwirth, the Tony and Emmy winner best known for her roles in Chicago and Cheers, an NBC sitcom about a Boston bar, is an unexpected — and unabashed — Philadelphia fan.
The longtime New Yorker has been in town for a couple of weeks. She’s rehearsing with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, intensely preparing for the lead in A Small Fire.
Playwright Adam Bock’s drama, opening Friday, Oct. 18, follows a seemingly indomitable woman (Emily Bridges, played by Neuwirth) who inexplicably loses her sense of smell, then of sight, then of hearing — as she and her husband prepare for their daughter’s wedding.
Here, Neuwirth talks with all the pride of a Philly native about our city, and about the woman she becomes onstage.
This isn’t your first Philadelphia gig.
I played here 40 years ago in my very first job, in A Chorus Line. I played at the Forrest Theatre.
I also did some TV work around here around aught 3 or so. I also sang a concert here once, with the symphony at the Mann Center. Oh my god: What incredible acoustics. What an incredible orchestra you have.
Have you been just to visit?
There have been a couple of times when my husband and I just wanted to get out of the city [New York] for a couple of days. We’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, Philadelphia.’
It’s a beautiful city — very photogenic. I just like the vibe here.
We also have three cats. All three of them are rescues, and one of them we adopted from Philly PAWS. That was seven years ago. Every time we come back to Philadelphia, we go visit where Talulah is from.
Your social media updates make you seem local.
I ran into two of [Pennsylvania Ballet] dancers in the grocery store, Sydney [Dolan] and Austin [Eyler]. I met them at the Princess Grace Awards last year — Angel [Corella, the ballet’s artistic director] was there. When I saw them, they said, ‘Why don’t you come to a rehearsal? We’re having a run-through [of Don Quixote] tomorrow.’
Angel is so sweet, so nice. I arrived at rehearsal, and he put a chair in the front of the room, and I sat there and watched the full ballet. This beautiful company: Charles Askegard playing Don Quixote, Beatrice [Jona Affron] conducting. It was very exciting.
A private ballet performance: Just a regular day in Philly for you?
I wouldn’t call it too regular. It’s been pretty much grocery shopping to sustain myself as I get to rehearsal every day. That day was just a treat on my day off.
Either way, your Twitter game is strong.
When I’m on Twitter, there’s a lot of l’esprit d’escalier, a lot of, ‘Oh yeah. I should probably Tweet that.’ I’ll think of a response 16 hours later, and I do it anyway.
For the ballet, I thought I’d hold that post for Flashback Friday, because I want a lot of people to see it, because I want anybody in the area to see the ballet. It’s fabulous. It’s funny. It’s romantic. It’s heartbreaking. It’s wonderful.
When I go on Twitter, it is mostly just to say, ‘Go see my friend do this, or go see my friend do that, or watch this cute cat video.’
Tell us about “A Small Fire.”
It’s a beautiful play. It’s beautifully written, and my role presents several challenges that are really interesting to attempt.
My role is about what happens to [my character] and her relationships and the people around her, when she is losing different senses.
How do you portray someone literally losing her senses?
It’s an interesting physical process: how focus shifts, what I pay attention to, and what I try not to, and what I replace.
As an actress, I’ve been trained in putting all my attention on the other, on my partners, the other people in the scene. Typically, I pick up on their behavior by watching them and listening to them. But because I am sighted, I have to ignore what I see, and I have to ignore what I hear.
There is also the progression I’m trying to figure out. The play follows the course of a few weeks. I need to be slightly different when she immediately experiences sight loss, and then, two weeks later, which is slightly different, then two weeks after that.
I’m a little fried, honestly.
I’ve been trying to describe A Small Fire to people, and I really can’t. You know how Aaron Copland’s music is very fair and open, but it’s very rich and it’s very emotional in certain ways? I feel like it’s somewhat analogous to that.
People are going to get different things from it. I hope they come with open minds and open hearts. I think it will be personal to who you are, what your life experience is, and what your relationships are.
Have you been recognized around town?
If I’ve been recognized, I’m not aware of it.
Although, a woman today looked at me, and said, ‘Do you work at Bryn Mawr?’
I said. ‘Nope.’
A Small Fire
Oct. 18-Nov. 10 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.