Our favorite Mary-Louise Parker theatre roles
The TV fanatic or casual fan likely knows Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin in Weeds. Her role as a widowed mother who grows marijuana to support her family (a one-woman hustle that balloons into a larger enterprise) earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award. But if you only know Parker from Weeds, you might not know her full range: In her 30-plus-year career, much of which she’s built on stage, she’s proved her chops for comedy, drama, and everything in between.
Parker has even more stage awards than screen awards (and four screen awards is impressive), with two Tonys in addition to Drama Desks, Obies, and plenty other trophies. She’s appeared nine times each on and off Broadway, with some of those credits overlapping, as her most successful Off-Broadway performances led to a Broadway transfer.
Ahead of her latest stage gig – her return to Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive on Broadway, nearly 25 years after her award-winning performance in the Off-Broadway world premiere — we’re looking back on some of Parker’s career highlights on the New York stage.
The Art of Success
Parker made her Off-Broadway debut in 1989 in The Art of Success, Nick Dear’s play about the 18th-century satirical artist William Hogarth. The Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry played Hogarth, and Parker played his wife, Jane. It wouldn’t be long until Parker became widely famous and learned the art of success for herself!
Prelude to a Kiss
Parker starred alongside another major star in the Off-Broadway premiere of Prelude to a Kiss: Alec Baldwin, who played the Peter to her Rita, two newlyweds who fall for each other despite Rita’s pessimistic outlook. The twist is that she accidentally swaps bodies with an old man at their wedding reception and spends much of the play figuring out how to get back, so Parker was technically playing an old man in a young woman’s body. Talk about range! Baldwin went on to star in the film adaptation alongside 90s rom-com queen Meg Ryan, and Parker went on to star in Prelude to a Kiss‘s Broadway premiere, earning a Tony nomination.
Never has a rural diner been so star-filled as in the 1996 Broadway revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop, in which Parker starred alongside the likes of Ron Perlman, Kelly Bishop, and Billy Crudup as patrons stuck waiting out a snowstorm. Not only that, they’re there during the very vulnerable hours of 1 to 5 a.m., and whirlwind romances ensue between the unlikeliest of characters. Parker played Cherie, an aspiring nightclub singer who can’t find respectable work. That’s how you know Parker’s a fantastic actress: She doesn’t have that problem!
Four Dogs and a Bone
John Patrick Shanley’s play Four Dogs and a Bone shows audiences what really happens behind closed doors in Hollywood, where the actors, writer, and producer manipulate and negotiate with each other as they try to get a failing movie off the ground. Parker’s character, Brenda, was the sly lead actress who schemes her way into a bigger part by convincing the producer the movie only works if her co-star’s screen time is cut. Parker’s understudy for that production was another A-list leading lady in the making: Debra Messing, making her Off-Broadway debut!
If you needed any more proof of Parker’s talent, you’ll find it in her first Tony Award, which she won for starring in David Auburn’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play. She first played the role of Catherine, the daughter of a math genius who struggles not to succumb to mental illness like he did, off Broadway at New York City Center. Foreshadowing her future Tony, she won a Drama Desk Award for her Off-Broadway performance, too. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Proof was a star-making theatre gig for Parker.
Angels in America
Besides Four Dogs and a Bone, Parker and Messing share another credit: Harper Pitt in Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America. Messing originated the role at an early workshop at NYU in 1993, and Parker assumed the role 10 years later for a 6.5-hour TV adaptation of Kushner’s play about gay men living during the AIDS crisis. For her emotional performance as the Valium-addicted wife of a closeted lawyer, she won Golden Globe and Emmy Awards.
The title role of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is oft-considered one of the greatest female theatre roles ever written, and Parker is in the company of greats like Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, and many more as actresses who’ve played her. Parker took on the unhappy anti-heroic housewife in the play’s 18th (!) and most recent Broadway revival in 2009, opposite fellow two-time Tony winner Michael Cerveris as Hedda’s husband, Jorgen.
The freewheeling-woman-meets-stodgy-man (or vice versa) trope has been a rom-com staple since Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant on film in the 1930s, as a New York Times review of Heisenberg points out. But as that review also points out, Parker played her part as Georgie “to explosive perfection” both off and on Broadway. She reunited with director Mark Brokaw in Simon Stephen’s fresh take on the genre, with its metaphysical ideas (as alluded to by the physicist of the title) about how a couple’s selves and love and the things that connect them are always in flux.
The Sound Inside
The sound inside Studio 54 was one of uproarious applause every night while Parker was starring in Adam Rapp’s play. She originated the role of Bella Lee Baird, a cancer-stricken writing professor who develops a close relationship with her student prodigy, Christopher, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018 and reprised it on Broadway from 2019 to 2020. Her quietly affecting performance not only won her widespread critical acclaim, but her second Tony Award!
How I Learned to Drive
How I Learned to Drive is perhaps Parker’s most famous Off-Broadway credit. She starred as Li’l Bit, a woman coming to terms with her Uncle Peck’s sexual abuse of her throughout her adolescence, in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. She won multiple awards, including an Obie and a Lucille Lortel Award, as did her co-star, David Morse, who played Peck.
She performed in that play off Broadway in 1997, but it’s this far down on the list because How I Learned to Drive is her latest theatre credit, too. She’s reprising her role as Li’l Bit, alongside Morse and their original director, Mark Brokaw, for How I Learned to Drive‘s Broadway debut with Manhattan Theatre Club. Buckle up — Vogel’s play is no easy ride, but Parker’s sure to give another traffic-stopping performance.