Emma Messenger in, from left, 'Exit Strategies,' ''Night, Mother' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.' Photos by Rachel D. Graham of RDG Photography and Deb Flomberg of DenverMind Media.
2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS: 30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
Today’s recipient: Actor Emma Messenger
Today’s presenter: DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore
With her record third straight True West Award, there’s simply no denying it: Emma Messenger is a ferocious, tender force of nurture.
Messenger has been on an unabated and perhaps unprecedented roll since arriving in Denver three years ago. In 2015, she played three powderkeg characters, delivering performances that were astonishingly varied and at the same time indelibly Messenger:
- In Vintage Theatre’s ‘Night Mother, Messenger played a simpleminded mama who grows desperate when her bipolar daughter informs her she will commit suicide before the night is over.
- In the Edge Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Messenger played Martha, one of the most vicious characters in the history of the American theatre. Martha launches booze-soaked assaults deep into the evening, maliciously exposing her husband’s failures as if it were a blood sport. And then, of course, she cheats on him – right in front of his face.
- In the Edge Theatre’s current world premiere of Exit Strategies (through Dec. 27), Messenger plays a needy, broken widow. While this intriguing character is not yet fully formed on the page, Messenger has an uncanny ability to take the ambiguous and make it emphatic – and empathetic – on the stage.
Audiences adore Messenger. Henry Award judges are smitten with her. And critics? Well, they are head-over-heels for her. Westword’s Juliet Wittman calls Messenger “a peerless actor who owns the stage.” Dave Perry of the Aurora Sentinel finds her to be “nothing less than stellar.” The Denver Post’s Joanne Ostrow says Messenger is "riveting."
Messenger has won two consecutive Henry Awards. Martha makes her a front-runner for a third.
One of Messenger's biggest, toughest fans is her ‘Night, Mother director, Billie McBride. She believes Messenger can take any vicious or unlikable character and make her relatable to any audience member because Messenger is not only a powerhouse actor, “she is really a genuinely nice person,” McBride said.
“Listen, there is not an actor alive who doesn’t show you a hidden side of themselves. And that hidden thing is not always a good thing. But with Emma, it’s a very good thing.”
McBride credits Messenger’s success to two simple factors: “She has an amazing connection with her audiences,” she said, “and she is a natural comedian.”
But wait, none of the plays listed above was a comedy. Nevertheless, McBride says there is an underlying comedy strand encoded in Messenger's DNA. That’s what makes her characters’ selfishness, cruelty and obliviousness so real, surprising and unexpectedly tolerable to an audience.
“ ’Night, Mother is a play about depression and suicide, and it desperately needs moments of humor,” McBride said. “But I never had to tell Emma to be funny; she just was."
What’s perhaps most intriguing about Messenger's success is how often she isn’t outwardly “right” for some of the characters she is cast to play. And yet, directors just keep casting her anyway. She certainly was not an obvious choice to play Martha, given that Messenger is so plainly not cruel. Messenger does not hate herself. And one might assume she has never seduced a man in front of her husband.
But because Messenger allows audiences to see far into her real soul, McBride said, “You can’t not like whoever she is playing. You feel for her always.”
Audiences must have particularly felt for her in ‘Night, Mother, the story of the mother and her doomed, bipolar daughter. During the run, Messenger talked openly about the harrowing, daily challenge she and her husband, Rich, have faced with their own daughter's struggle with bipolarity. (Listen to our podcast.)
While Messenger does not believe her personal experiences directly inform her performances, McBride said they certainly contribute both to Messenger’s naturalism on stage and the bond she so regularly forges with audiences.
“People think she is just extraordinary – and they are right,” McBride said.
Still, Messenger’s third straight juggernaut acting slate could not have been fully realized without estimable talent around her - and Messenger had strong supporting casts in all three of these 2015 shows: James O’Hagan-Murphy, Scott Bellot and Maggy Stacy in Virginia Woolf; Haley Johnson in 'Night, Mother; and Andrew Uhlenhopp, Missy Moore and Emily Paton Davies in Exit Strategies.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Running Lines podcast: Emma Messenger and Haley Johnson talk about making it real in ''Night, Mother.' Just push play to listen.
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. This year, DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from around the state over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org THE 2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS TO DATE
Day 1: Rachel D. Graham
Day 2: BALLS! A Holiday Spectacular
Day 3: Creede Repertory Theatre's
50th anniversary season
Day 4: Laurence Curry
Day 5: Bernie Cardell
Day 6: Susan Lyles
Day 7: John Jurcheck
Day 8: Christopher L. Sheley
Day 9: DCPA Education's 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot'
Day 10: Man and Monster: Todd Debreceni and TJ Hogle
Day 11: Shauna Johnson
Day 12: Geoffrey Kent and Benjamin Bonenfant
Day 13: Sesugh Solomon Tor-Agbidye
Day 14: Keith Ewer
Day 15: Allison Watrous
Day 16: Jonathan Farwell
Day 17: Bob, Wendy and Missy Moore
Day 18: Emma Messenger
Day 19: Shannon McKinney
Day 20: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
Day 21: Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin
Day 22: Scott Beyette
Day 23: Augustus Truhn
Day 24: Jimmy Bruenger
Day 25: The Masters of Props: Rob Costigan, Peki Pineda and Becky Toma
Day 26: Jalyn Courtenay Webb
Day 27: Andre Rodriguez
Day 28: Rebecca Remaly
Day 29: Mark Collins
Day 30: Phamaly Theatre Company's Cabaret
Bonus: Donald R. Seawell