Van Valkenburgh creates a deliciously disturbing role

Tom Titus

When an actor or actress is charged with portraying a mentally

disturbed person, there’s an inherently added degree of difficulty.

When they’re creating the role -- in a world premiere -- that raises


the challenge bar considerably.

Deborah Van Valkenburgh is doing just that, through Oct. 6, at the

Laguna Playhouse with the role of Emily Mavin in Jon Marans’ new play

“Jumping for Joy.” And she’s doing it superbly.


“I feel really grateful to have the opportunity of beginning this

process,” Van Valkenburgh declared during an interview prior to last

Sunday’s matinee. “Most actors just re-create things. It’s very

special to be able to build a character from the ground up.”

The actress plays the schizophrenic older sister of the play’s

central character, her younger brother, who returns home to take care

of his father after he has suffered a heart attack. As it turns out,

however, it’s the loose cannon Emily who needs a caretaker -- since


when the father passes on, a decision must be reached on what is to

become of her.

“I feel like I still have other things to figure out about this

character, other areas to explore with her,” Van Valkenburgh said.

“Much of what she’s feeling doesn’t get to be shown on stage, if that

makes sense. She’s at once intelligent and volatile.”

Be that as it may, Van Valkenburgh has won the praise of

playwright Marans and her director, Richard Stein, for her


interpretation, not to mention critical bouquets. This column’s

review noted that the actress “leaps into this juicy but difficult

characterization with both feet” and that her character is called on

to “fly into destructive rages, which Van Valkenburgh displays


“Emily has so many layers and degrees,” Van Valkenburgh declared.

“Jon discouraged me from finding the maddest places to go. She

usually seems to be on the verge of containment. She has this

desperation, a need for rituals that she can depend on and predict.”

When adequately medicated, the character of Emily is highly

intelligent and perceptive, though she insists on wielding an

emotional control over her father and brother, demanding they pour

her milk and orange juice, for example. When her demands aren’t met,

all hell breaks loose.

Van Valkenburgh, who was born and raised in upstate New York and

now lives in Los Angeles (“I came out for two weeks 22 years ago,”

she smiles), has acted professionally for the past 25 years and has a

trio of South Coast Repertory plays to her credit -- “Dancing at

Lughnasa,” “If We Are Women” and “Old Times” -- and will be familiar

to TV audiences as Ted Knight’s daughter in “Too Close for Comfort”

and on the big screen in “The Warriors.”

At the playhouse, she is part of a skilled acting triumvirate,

with Alan Miller as her father and Daniel Nathal Spector as the

prodigal brother. Marans has given all three characters intellectual

“edges” for the performers to hone, but Van Valkenburgh’s assignment

clearly is the most demanding and most richly accomplished.

Her fellow actors are “supportive and positive,” she declared.

“It’s like we have a telepathic connection with each other.”

Response to this new, often acerbic play varies with each

audience, Van Valkenburgh said. “It can be a somber or mostly

gregarious play.

It’s not predictable from one performance to another,” she said.

“Every day is a challenge.”

The challenge will continue until “Jumping for Joy” closes its

maiden voyage a week from Sunday. Reservations for the world premiere

are being taken at (949) 497-2787.

* TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.