Mother-daughter duo takes on theater world

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Source: Ramsey Carey

Mary Ann Thebus (right) performs in “Rapture, Blister, Burn” which opened at the Goodman Theatre on January 26. Thebus plays Alice, a woman with a more traditional view of love.

Hayley Glatter, A&E Editor

At 6 a.m. the sun had not yet risen, but Jessica Thebus was having a birthday party.

Surrounded by her mother, father and sister, an adolescent Jessica opened gifts in the wee hours of the morning because her mother, actress Mary Ann Thebus, was in the middle of tech week for a show.

“We had gifts, we had a big elaborate meal … we had a great time. It was wild, just wonderful!” said Mary Ann Thebus who is starring in the newly opened “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

And this early birthday wake-up call wasn’t the only way Mary Ann Thebus’ career affected her daughter. Now the director of Northwestern’s MFA directing program, Jessica Thebus grew up with her mother’s atypical schedule and watched her mom take on a menagerie of roles on stage.

“I remember it being fun and it feeling like all these grown-ups were having as much fun as kids had when they played,” Jessica Thebus said. “It seemed like you could just keep doing that as an adult if you were in the theater.”

Jessica and Mary Ann Thebus interact in that quintessential mother-daughter way — finishing each other’s sentences and constantly exchanging sarcastic quips. In “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” which focuses on the age-old question,”What do women really want?”, Mary Ann takes on the role of Alice, the eldest voice on stage with a more traditional approach to navigating the waters of love.

“Here’s the thing, which is kind of interesting for me, is that the woman I’m representing is more like my mother than me,” Mary Ann Thebus said. “I was much more eccentric and not particularly traditional, but my mother was traditional about male-female type things.”

The show follows two women, Catherine and Gwen, as they come to terms with what they’ve accomplished in their respective professional and personal lives. The show centers around whether or not it’s better to be married to your job or to your spouse, and Jessica Thebus said when her mother approached her with this question, she was certain of her answer: She is married to her husband and family.

“I think for all of us who have families, and there are a lot of female directors in Chicago who have families, and males too, but I think it still tends to be a little bit more unexpected for women to be able to work … you’re always trying to find time,” Jessica Thebus said.

But before Mary Ann Thebus made her debut in “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Jessica Thebus watched her mother act in theaters across the world. Mary Ann Thebus began acting overseas in English-speaking theater companies in places like Iran and Turkey, and then the Thebus family returned stateside. Mary Ann Thebus, who has also spent time teaching acting, decided to try her hand at professional acting in Chicago.

“Jessica was more aware of some of the challenges because overseas, it had been, as you described, kind of fun and all this lark,” Mary Ann Thebus said. “But then, when I started pursuing it professionally here in Chicago, you had to audition. Nobody knew me, I didn’t have a resume that included anything in this country.”

Mary Ann Thebus said her daughter would see how upset she would get if she wasn’t cast and suspected that her disappointment may have pushed Jessica into the directing, rather than acting world.

However, though Jessica Thebus said she loves directing, she truly got her start as an actress.

“I loved acting, actually, and I loved improvising, but I had some stage fright specifically connected to being able to memorize,” Jessica Thebus said. “Then I directed my first thing and I had a great time. And what I say about that is that I just remember when I was directing this piece in college … I forgot what I was wearing. Like I became utterly unselfconscious of myself and just became involved in the task. I also love stories, I love reading and writing stories, and as the director you get to make the story. And that’s exciting to me.”

Since then, Jessica Thebus, whose 10-year-old daughter Willa Marie also loves acting, has directed more than a dozen shows in Chicago and across the country. On two occasions, she even directed a show her mother acted in.

“Now, the more interesting thing is the first time we worked together, whether or not to call me Mom or Mary Ann,” Mary Ann Thebus said. “Because she doesn’t call me Mary Ann, she calls me Mom, but everybody is called by their first name. So I remember the first day … it was Mary Ann, and then the second day it was Mom. And that was the end of that.”

That show, “Morning’s at Seven,”  and “Inherit the Wind” are the two shows Jessica Thebus has directed and Mary Ann Thebus has acted in. The two also co-directed “Collected Stories” at American Blues Theater. They collaborated more when Jessica Thebus was younger, but retain a high degree of professional respect for one another.

“I also find it very exciting that Jessie and I share the same profession,” Mary Ann Thebus said.

After Mary Ann Thebus said this, her daughter interjected, patting her mom’s arm and telling her not to cry. Mary Ann Thebus shook her daughter off and continued.

“I mean, it’s nice, and it’s interesting,” she said. “It’s comforting … I like it. I like it a lot.”

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