News of Jan Maxwell's retirement from the stage has hit harder than people outside the theater might understand.
Who does such a thing? Dancers and opera singers retire because, eventually, their instruments -- that is, their bodies -- just can't do it anymore. Civilians retire because -- well, you know the range of reasons why individuals choose or are pushed to leave jobs in hopes of a good final chapter.
But theater actors, especially those at their prime with five Tony nominations and a resumé overflowing with spectacular work, are expected to be hungry for the stage forever. Or at least as long as audiences are hungry for them.
Unless someone is sick, which Maxwell, 58, is not reported to be, such blazingly self-challenging actors are meant to thrive in an art form that, unlike Hollywood, supposedly welcomes the expertise that comes with experience. She illuminates the crack between major artistry and mere stardom, and was supposed to be inextricable from the continuity of the theater.
After 26 years in the New York City theater, however, Maxwell told Time Out/New York last month that her performance in Howard Baker's tough and intense "Scenes From an Execution" will be her last. The drama, produced by the Potomac Theatre Project in a 90-seat rented Chelsea space owned by the Atlantic Theater Company, is expected to close next Sunday.
Maxwell, who refuses to talk further about her decision, has been elusive about her reasons. "This is just a personal choice for me," she told the magazine. "I've been doing a lot of traveling in the last couple of years and I want to travel more. There are things I want to see and do."
But there is a more telling quote in the interview. She says she has been "disappointed in the kind of theater that you can make a living doing." Here is one of the smartest, most versatile, elegantly formidable actresses in New York -- the rare working theater actor, with an emphasis on working. And yet even she says, "The kinds of roles I was being offered were just . . . I'd been there and done that. . . . If I could do television and film just to keep the health insurance going, that would be great. But I don't know if that will happen."
Just what we'll be missing is gloriously on view in director Richard Romagnoli's lean, shrewd, low-budget production -- for which, not incidentally, she brings home around $250 a week. Despite her wide-ranging career on Broadway, Maxwell, with her typically atypical appetite for adventure, chose to have her finale in a tiny upstairs theater playing a headstrong 16th century Venetian painter in a knotty monster of a play. It's her second time in this drama by her favorite playwright and her sixth collaboration with the serious low-profile Potomac.
Romagnoli, one of the group's three co-artistic directors, first met Maxwell in Washington through her then-boyfriend, now husband, actor Robert Emmet Lunney ("Julie & Julia"). Asked to describe Maxwell's specialness, Romagnoli said, "Oh, God! She's a fearless artist. She's willing to make choices, play characters that other artists, man or woman, would not play -- choices that might negatively impact on their brand. Jan Maxwell really doesn't give a damn about that."
Right now, she is a long way, at least geographically, from Broadway, where she got one of her Tony nominations as Phyllis, the follies girl who learned to be a trophy wife in the stunning 2011 revival of "Follies." In the 2006 revival of Joe Orton's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," co-starring Alec Baldwin, Maxwell turned herself into a willing grotesque with an admirably delusional lack of inhibition. She was unafraid to be ridiculously blissfully overqualified as the child-loathing baroness from Vulgaria in the 2005 revival of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
In 2010, she had two Tony nominations -- one for her portrayal of the beleaguered but hardly long-suffering wife in "Lend Me a Tenor," the other for the revival of "The Royal Family," which included one of the few truly grand tantrums I've ever seen on the stage. At the start of the classic 1927 comedy, she was a supremely capable and glamorous mother who still found time to remember the inbred value of a theatrical entrance. When she unraveled, however, she was not just an actress in a screwball flapper farce but a real multitasking woman cracking, complete with maniacal laugh, under a lifetime of choices between love and work.
Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning director who staged "The Royal Family" and guided Maxwell's portrayal of an imperious, warm, furiously liberal Washington hostess last year in "The City of Conversation," calls her retirement a "major loss" to the stage.
"There is always a fascinating subversive energy running under everything she does," he told me recently, admitting he is "coping with my grief" at the loss and marveling at her "amazing technique. . . . Every performance is abundant with life. She is never satisfied with the status quo, with the smooth surface. She's out there to roil the waters and is therefore thrilling to watch." He adds -- and we know what he means -- that she takes scenes to "dangerous places."
In "Scenes From an Execution," she goes dangerously into the layers upon layers of Galactia, the only woman to be chosen by the government to create an epic painting glorifying a triumphant battle. With her face full of hollows and shadows and her long hard bones folding in insolent sensuality, Maxwell dares to find the feral witch, the girl, the rebel, the seductress and the unwashed life force in this artist who bucks the system at her peril.
Losing Maxwell feels much like hearing that a favorite restaurant or a beautiful store is closing. It is hard not to think, perhaps, if we had gone more often to the restaurant or bought more from the store, just maybe we would have been able to keep it open.