Credit: Deborah Dryden
Actress Kristine Nielsen is a beloved fixture on the New York theater scene where she has maintained a continuous presence for over three decades. Her first major recognition came in 1999 when she created the role of Mrs. Siezmagraff in Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation, but it was her brilliant, side-splitting turn in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that earned her her first Tony nomination in 2013.
Now, she comes to the American Repertory Theater with Alexa Junge’s acclaimed adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a delicious, edge-of-your-seat Victorian thriller that will no doubt be the hottest ticket in town this winter.
Fingersmith is such a great story.
It really is. I think that’s why every actor is up here. It is just a page-turner.
It really feels like it’s something out of Charles Dickens’ head.
The appeal of it is that it sets you up for one thing, and you feel [you] know these people. They’re slightly off and enchanting in a sort of criminal way and you think, “This is going to be fun! These people are all crazy!” And then the twists all start happening and you go, “I don’t know where it’s going!” And that’s a great thing. I admire [Sarah Waters, author] so much for the novel and what [playwright] Alexa [Junge] has done with this adaptation, it’s just spectacular.
I imagine that it will be really fun to take the audience on this ride each night.
I think that’s the element that I am most excited about. They will help us shape this story and also tell us what they’re missing and what they get ahead of, or what they’re confused by. And that’s the best part.
Your role, Mrs. Sucksby, is quite a character.
She’s a great character. She’s somebody that you have such assumptions about and hopefully are quite seduced by in a really jovial kind of way to then see potential other colors in her. She’s more complicated than you think she is, and I love that. That’s actually why I did it. I don’t ever count lines or say, “Oh, it’s not big enough,” or something like that. When you get a character that’s really good—and it may be the lot of women in this world that when we get older, the character roles are just as good as they always were.
The scheme at the center of the play was drummed up by Mrs. Sucksby, and it took her around 17 years to follow through from start to finish. That’s commitment!
Twenty-one years, believe it or not. It’s been stewing in her and what I also love about the play, without it preaching at the audience, is that it tells you women’s lot in this world, and I think it’s reflected, still, in our current world. It’s that jocular male view of women, you know, and it is fun to take that and turn it a bit on its head. Not to go too much into our political world, but those glass ceilings, they were more like cement ceilings in that era for women.
The audience sees her through many different lights throughout the play. Do you consider her, at any point, to be a villain?
No. I think one might sense that cause and effect in her character, but I think it’s all done for what, as I said before, trying to break through, trying to make a better life. And I think that’s what she sits on for 21 years. Is it selfish? Yes. But I think it’s intentioned in a positive way. It’s what makes it so Dickensian in the sense that Fagin was one thing and quite another in another scene, do you know? He could be scary, could be lovable, could be all of the above and that’s the goal. And if you run over people on the way of that, well, that’s life, you know? That’s their lot. My lot is this. It’s a very dog-eat-dog world.
Are you having fun with her?
I am. I really am. I so enjoy the cast, and I’m so enjoying these two young actresses [Tracee Chimo and Christina Bennett Lind], and it’s just so exciting to see what they’re doing each day with the story line and their individual journeys. It’s quite, quite fun.
Is there a future for Fingersmith past this production?
I don’t know, I hope so. I think there’s intention for that. I hope to goodness that it does flourish past here, but maybe that will depend on our work here. I think there’s a lot of interest in it. One does not want to rush it, though. One wants to make sure we’re telling it in the best possible way.
FINGERSMITH. 12.4–1.8 AT THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.