Actress Dana Delany pushes past her comfort zone in "Goodnight Nobody"

By Britt Stigler / January 31, 2020
Dana Delany and Saamer Usmani in Rachel Bonds's "Goodnight Nobody." Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Delany, known for her work as Katherine Mayfair on "Desperate Housewives" and as Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy the 1980s series "China Beach," stars as Mara, an accomplished sculptor who is mother to one of the main characters, the source of inspiration of another and the lover of a third. Pushed along by Bonds's tight writing, the intricate arrangement of these relationships and the others in the play results in what Delany likened to a musical piece in which the actors are all part of the same jazz group.

"Rachel's writing … seems naturalistic, but it's not. It's very specific. And each comma, each slash, each overlap is written in there," Delany said. "So it's quite fun, but it takes a lot of energy to do this play because you really have to be right in it at that time. And if one person misses a little beat, it kind of sends it in a different direction. So we're a very tight knit cast because of that."

This writing style, with its exacting qualities, leaves very little room for improvisation, Delany noted. But it was the prospect of acting in a way that forced her out of her comfort zone — in addition to working with Bonds and Rafaeli — that spurred Delany to take on the role.

"It's such a joy now to just work with women, and young women, that have the energy and the drive and the ambition," Delany said. "And it kind of kicks me in the butt. It's good for me. And this kind of play is so not what I do in television or film."

As an artist herself, Delany was also drawn to inhabiting the role of a woman who gained the adoration of peers in a field populated, in large part, by men. While workshopping the role, Bonds shared in a 2019 interview that she sourced inspiration for Mara from the visual artist Kiki Smith, who created figurative work in the 1980s and early 1990s. As for Delany, she found a kinship for her character in the celebrated South African sculptor Jane Alexander.

"For her, to be successful means that she, one, was good and, two, really had a strong ego and believed in herself," Delany said of her character, continuing that it's "been fun to play a successful artist, somebody who chose to have a child on her own, to be a single mother, [and] still has a rich sexual life."

No stranger to the stage, Delany's recent immersion into theater still represents a major shift for the actress, who has spent a majority of her career on television. After rising to fame (and snagging two Primetime Emmy Awards) for her leading part on "China Beach," the actress swept through high-profile television and film roles, with the most recent t.v. appearance being "The Code" in 2019.

"I feel like I'm doing my career backwards," Delany joked. "Or maybe I was the smart one, because I am now doing all regional theater that I should have done in my 20s. But now I can afford to do it."

With plans to remain working within the industry (this summer, she hopes to workshop a play that she is currently developing with Jen Silverman and Mike Donahue), central to Delany's transition to spending more time on the stage is the overall artistic puzzle that it presents — a challenge that the veteran performer is still working through.

"It pushes me more. And I think it's important to do that, especially the older you get," said Delany, currently 63. "I think it's good to scare yourself, and theater still scares me. I think I am still trying to figure it out."