For the most part, Brenda Bynum is retired from working in the theater. Unless, that is, a role comes along that whets her appetite again. One did in 2011, with “August, Osage County” at the Alliance Theater, and now she has found another.
The veteran Atlanta actress is appearing in “Good People,” running through February 10 at the Alliance. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire and set in Boston, the drama follows Margie Walsh (Kate Buddeke), a single mother who is supporting her disabled daughter. When Margie gets laid off, she decides to ask for help from Mike (Thomas Vincent Kelly), a high school flame who has made it out of her neighborhood and is now a doctor. Margie eventually realizes that Mike might not be as willing as she’d like to assist her and that there’s a definite class difference between them now.
The play won Frances McDormand a Tony Award in 2011 and is now making the regional theater rounds.
Bynum plays the character of Dottie, Margie’s bingo-playing, feisty landlady. “Dottie has a mouth on her,” laughs Bynum. A major appeal for her in accepting the role was that “Good People” revolves around a female protagonist. “I love plays where the main character is a woman,” she says. “That doesn’t happen often. This is about a woman surviving, maintaining her dignity. This is so much about courage and resiliency.”
So when Susan Booth, the Alliance Theatre’s artistic director, who is also directing the play, asked Bynum to come out of retirement a second time, she couldn’t say no. “Peel me another grape,” she replied to Booth.
Bynum has a happy life now, spending lots of time with her grandchildren. When “August, Osage County” came up, she hadn’t acted in five years. She was hesitant, but in the end it was a part she simply couldn’t pass up: Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of a large dysfunctional family. She knew the role would be physically exhausting; it’s a three-hour play and involved climbing up and down stairs every night. The story was also emotionally grueling. The irony was that Bynum would leave home for the theater feeling somewhat tired already thinking about what lay ahead, then have a burst of energy after each performance was over.
Playing Dottie is a nice counterbalance to Violet, Bynum says: “It’s not a huge role — and I get to sit the entire play.”
Bynum was a resident artist at Theatre Emory and a faculty member there from 1983 to 2000. She also served as the acting teacher for the Alliance’s Professional Acting Intern Program for almost 20 years. That program ended in 1996, but while there she taught a virtual who’s who of Atlanta actors and other theatrical folks: Georgia Shakespeare’s Richard Garner, Academy Award winner Ray McKinnon and the late Suzi Bass, to name a few. She also mentored two of Atlanta’s finest actresses, Tess Malis Kincaid and Carolyn Cook. “They are all over Atlanta stages now,” Bynum observes. “They anchor theater here, and neither might not be here in Atlanta if not for the program.”
Performing with both Kincaid and Cook, as well as Garner, in “Osage County” was a career highlight. “It was certainly the best ensemble cast I’ve ever been a part of,” Bynum says.
Another of her students in the intern program was Kristen Ariza, who now lives in Los Angeles but has returned to Atlanta to play Kate, Mike’s wife, in “Good People.”
Ariza, part of Bynum’s last Alliance class, has vivid memories of her experiences here. Reuniting with Bynum and getting to act with her years later is special for her. “It’s such a beautiful show, dealing with choice versus luck and how that plays out in our life,” Ariza says. “To be able to do it here in Atlanta with Brenda is a great feeling.”
Although she is choosy these days, Bynum has learned never to say “never.” Next up is a pet project, a piece celebrating the life of Georgia author and human rights activist Lillian Smith. Bynum has been commissioned to write it and hopes to tour “Jordan Is So Chilly: An Encounter With Lillian Smith” after it premieres in April at the Rearden Theater of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. “I am thrilled to be able to tell her story,” the actress says. “She needs to be discovered. She was very much a woman ahead of her time.”