December 2, 1999
Before she utters a word of dialogue or even performs a bit of business, Mil Nicholson makes her presence onstage quite apparent. It's not that she steals scenes or chews scenery. She's too much of a graceful lady and a team player for that. But this statuesque, imposing actress has a face that launches a thousand diverse emotions and the type of eloquent diction that instantly turns dialogue into poetry. For the second time this year, the British-born Nicholson is playing an outspoken, formidable Irish woman in a local production--Blue Sphere Alliance's riveting revival of Greg Suddeth's bittersweet Irish family drama, Being of Sound Mind, now extended through Dec 19 at Hollywood's Lex Theatre.
Last May, in the Playwrights 6 anthology Mayhem at the Celebration Theatre, Nicholson played another feisty Irish woman to sublime effect--in Larry Dean Harris' one-act comedy Stage Moms, a fanciful musing on what might happen if the mothers of Eugene O'Neil (Nicholson) and Tennessee Williams (Paula Fins) met and enjoyed a moment in the spotlight.
Throughout her career (which dates back to age 7 in Wallsend, in Northern England), Nicholson has mastered a multitude of dialects--German, Scottish, Welsh, Cockney, French, and regional American, among others. In this critic's view, she seems born to play domineering, strapping Irish earth mothers. Mary Tyrone, the character based on O'Neil's mother in Long Day's Journey into Night, seems like a particularly apt role for her. Surprisingly, she has never acted in an O'Neil play, though she won kudos for playing Meg in a Massachusetts production of Brendan Behan's The Hostage.
"I don't like to pigeonhole myself in one particular role or another," Nicholson told Back Stage West in a recent phone interview. "I've played a wide range of both comedic and dramatic plays, with perhaps a few more on the comedic side." Her performances range from classical plays to The Fantastics--in England, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, where she and her actor husband Gary Bullock have resided since 1991. "We moved here to pursue work in films and television," she explained, "which is why I did very little stage work during my first few years here. We both love working on the stage, but there are such considerations as financial realities that actors must deal with."
Recently, both Nicholson and Bullock have increased their local stage activity. Both are members of the Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, and also loan their talents to Playwrights 6, the impressive new company of playwrights who are all current or past members of P.K.E. (with no direct affiliation). The couple perform separately and together in readings and public performances offered by both groups.
Nicholson was educated in Harrow, Middlesex (outside London) and returned to Northern England in her teen years, where she won awards in drama tournaments. At age 17, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Nicholson moved to the U.S. in the mid-'60s … to Massachusetts. She lists an extensive roster of stage credits from this period, including Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. "These are roles I had always wanted to play, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to do them. It might be interesting to play them again at this point in my life," Nicholson indicated.
She met … Bullock (whom she calls her "love mate"), in a Massachusetts production of The Crucible. They married and thereafter formed a company called Mockingbird Productions, which initially offered his one-man Abe Lincoln show. This was followed by their co-starring stint in Bill Manhoff's comedy The Owl and the Pussycat, to fine reviews. She and Bullock have also directed one another and helmed solo directing efforts, but she admits that acting is her first love. In Los Angeles, she has worked in commercials and television as well as films, such as Spy Hard and Sweet Underground.
Nicholson's effectiveness onstage clearly has to do with innate talent and the finest of training, but one cannot exclude enthusiasm as another key element.
"I was recently talking to someone who was astonished to discover that I had never tried marijuana," she chuckled. "I explained that I get high on life--and on theatre. I sometimes get so wound up that I go home after a performance and have trouble falling asleep. But in a good way. The thrill of performing a challenging role can be as exciting as a parachute jump."
In Being of Sound Mind, Nicholson's exquisitely textured performance of a woman balancing bossy demeanor with underlying compassion provides fortunate local audiences with the opportunity to share in the actress' latest euphoric adventure.