Elizabeth Marvel is not one to shy away from a bold stage role. In director Ivo van Hove’s controversial 1999 off-Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she spent an inordinate amount of time submerged underwater in a bathtub. A few years later, in his take on “Hedda Gabler,” she was drenched by a can of tomato juice while wearing little more than a slipdress. And rehearsals for Michael Weller’s 2008 domestic drama “Fifty Words” left she and her co-star injured badly enough that its opening had to be pushed back.
“I’m sort of the go-to-gal [for those things] because I’m willing to do anything. I don’t believe in saying no,” says Marvel, adding wryly, “Every time I do a play I’m like, ‘When do I get to do the one where I wear a gown, sit in a chair and say funny things?’ I’d love to do that.”
Not this time around. Her current part in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Book of Grace,” opening March 17 at the Public Theater, will do little to change her rep. A spare meditation on war, violence and hatred, the play follows Vet, a U.S. border patrol officer and his long-suffering waitress wife, Grace (Marvel) who are visited by Vet’s estranged son Buddy, a decorated soldier. Throughout, Marvel is variously yelled at, shoved and thrown around the set. She took her bow at a recent performance covered in dirt, with a scabbed knee and tears streaming down her face.
Despite all the abuse — metaphorical and otherwise — Grace is not, in Marvel’s eyes, the passive character she appears. “I have no ability or interest to play that weak, beaten person. I find Grace so strong and forward-moving: in the face of so much pain and brutality she spends her life searching for evidence of good things,” explains the actress on a sofa outside her dressing room. “She lives in a world of boundaries and beatings and she continues to love and open her heart, which to me is the most profound kind of bravery.”
Clearly Marvel’s take rings true with its creator. “Beth is perfect: her Grace is showing us notes and colors that I thought only existed in my head,” says Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner who enlisted Marvel for a reading of the play a year and a half ago.
For Marvel, “The Book of Grace” fits easily into her philosophy of participating in what she calls real “theatrical experiences” as opposed to vanity projects.
“This is a play that’s very important for me. I feel not just artistically am I growing from [this play], but I feel like I’m being of service by doing it,” says Marvel, 40, who participates in more literal service by performing Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” and “Ajax” for military families and veterans across the country as part of the Theater of War project.
“It’s really interesting because I’m a Quaker…so it’s been radical to me to be hired by the Department of Defense under contract,” she says.
The youngest of three children, Marvel grew up in Pennsylvania intending to become a visual artist. But after graduating from the Interlochen Arts Academy high school, she instead bummed around London, where she stumbled on a different kind of artistic calling when watching Vanessa Redgrave onstage in “A Touch of the Poet.”
“Watching her was what I think it must have been like at the turn of the century when people saw Houdini,” she recalls. “Because I knew it was artifice, but I had no idea how she did it. I was just struck by lightning and became kind of obsessed.”
She was accepted at The Juilliard School despite “[doing] everything wrong in my audition.…I was so used to the art world of sitting quietly in a studio that it was very shocking being around so many people and in front of so many people. That’s a battle I still wage,” says Marvel, who suffers from acute stage fright and performance anxiety. (“You feel like you’re going to throw up. You can’t stop shaking. You feel like you’re going to die. You spend the whole day dreading it. That’s how I live my life.”)
It hasn’t stopped her from keeping busy. This year alone she stars in three plays. After “The Book of Grace” comes a Manhattan Theatre Club production of the British family drama “That Face” later this spring. And come fall, she’ll team up again with van Hove on “The Little Foxes.” It is part of what Marvel, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, actor Bill Camp, and their three-year-old son Silas, calls her “big push” before doing more TV work to pay the bills and allow for more regular hours.
But regardless of the medium, she remains consistent in her motivation. “I’m just interested in people asking me to do something that I don’t know how to do and have someone present an idea that I never would have thought of,” says Marvel. “Because if I’m in control of things, it’s usually not the best idea.”