Tony-winning prof’s latest play tackles impact of war

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Even with a Tony Award in her cap, a show premiering on Broadway and another now playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Northwestern performance studies Prof. Mary Zimmerman said her rise to the top hasn’t been a life-altering experience.

“My life hasn’t really changed since winning the Tony,” Zimmerman said. “I still do what I did. It’s a very low level of celebrity, which is just fine with me.”

“Trojan Women,” which runs at the Goodman through May 11 and is directed by Zimmerman, is only one of the many productions keeping the professor busy. She spent last week in New York putting the final touches on her new Broadway show, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” and she will travel to Australia over the summer to direct “Metamorphoses,” which won her a Tony Award for best direction last year.

“I’m kind of shockingly busy at the moment,” she said.

Zimmerman said she reworked and interpreted Seneca’s “Trojan Women,” a Roman tragedy, in order to send a message about international conflicts. Zimmerman communicates the realities of war that are felt by both soldiers and civilians through blood-spattered gray canvas, fingernail-scratched concrete and a fairly austere background in the play.

“The one inevitability of war is that people who have nothing to do with the conflict will be killed,” she said.

Zimmerman said she chose to stage “Trojan Women” last October. She said the city of Troy, ruined after a long, brutal war with Greece, parallels both the effects of war in Iraq and the devastation on Sept. 11, 2001. She said she staged the ancient script and transformed the characters’ appearance to underscore her disapproval of U.S. military action in Iraq.

“So much of the language is about destruction and what it’s like when buildings fall down,” she said.

Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe, who saw the first preview of “Trojan Women,” said she was impressed with the play’s connection to current international events.

“I was very moved and struck by its almost overpowering contemporary scene,” she said.

Critics also are impressed with Zimmerman’s work: Chicago Tribune theater critic Michael Phillips said he liked the play’s sparse, simple scenery. Phillips, who reviewed the play on April 13, said he does not expect “Trojan Women” to receive as many accolades as “Metamorphoses,” but he thinks Zimmerman did some “honorable and intelligent work.”

“Everyone seems to acknowledge that this is a major director taking on a formidable and truly challenging Roman tragedy,” Phillips said. “So you’re dealing with a project that has high ambitions.”

Even with her success, Zimmerman said she is most happy working with students. Zimmerman, who received her undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree from NU, said she wanted to teach from a young age. Her parents were professors and Zimmerman said she thought it was the “adult profession to be.”

Zimmerman said she loves to visit and direct in New York on occasion. Nonetheless, she said does her work for the art of it.

“I never do my shows aiming them at New York,” she said. “I don’t work with the commercial Broadway theater in mind.”

“Trojan Women” continues at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., until May 11. Tickets are $10 to $40. Call 312-443-3800.

The Daily’s Colleen Crone contributed to this report.