Looking out from the first row of the jury in To Kill a Mockingbird is a face Philly theatergoers might recognize. Aubie Merrylees is a Philadelphia actor who’s in his first Broadway show.
And what a show it is: The huge hit of the season, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Harper Lee’s novel, Mockingbird stars Jeff Daniels as lawyer Atticus Finch.
The juror role isn’t a marquee part — Merrylees doesn’t speak any lines. But he’s appearing in eight shows a week, and in addition to playing a juror, he’s understudying five other roles, including Jem and Dill.
Merrylees has already won much admiration on Philly stages. He was terrific as the boy tortured by a puppet in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Hand to God and was a standout in the Arden’s production of Stupid F#*@ing Bird.
He was in Aliens at Theatre Exile in 2011, followed by The Liar at the Lantern, A Bright New Boise with Simpatico, My Romantic History with Inis Nua, and an earlier iteration of Charlotte’s Web at the Arden.
He also did “a slew of plays at People’s Light,” where he has been a member of the acting company since 2000.
He went on to Yale Drama School, as the lucky few do, then moved to Brooklyn and landed a Broadway gig, as the fewest of the lucky few do.
He chatted recently with the Inquirer and Daily News.
I thought it would be so different, but in so many ways, it isn’t. At the end of the day, a play is a play, and as an actor, your job is the same.
Of course, I am still pinching myself. I’ve wanted to be on Broadway since I was a little kid. As I walk to the theater every day, I look up at the bright, bright lights of Times Square, and I can’t help but smile and think, “This is where I work!”
But underneath the excitement, the job is the same. No matter where you are, the process of making a good play doesn’t really change. And my job is still to inhabit the play world as truthfully as I can.
Well, we have a hairdresser on staff who cuts my hair backstage every two weeks. Luxury!
And we get to reach a much wider audience than I’m used to. There’s a crowd outside the stage door every night.
In Philly, the only people who meet you at the stage door are other theater people. If you want to interact with patrons, you have to be proactive about it to some degree — you have to choose to leave through the lobby, to hang around outside the theater, to talk to people you don’t know.
But here, the audience is everywhere — outside the theater, on the train home. … It is a very cool thing.
My focus is a little bit different. I understudy five characters in addition to my role in the ensemble, so I have more of a split focus than I’m used to. But the way I approach all of those characters is no different.
Being an understudy just means you can’t rely on muscle memory to teach you the part. When you’re playing a [regular] role, you live inside that role constantly, and performing that role every day teaches your body a lot. In Hand to God, I was working with that puppet for eight hours a day.
As an understudy, you can’t rely on that repetition, so you have to watch fiercely, and prepare yourself — give yourself that repetition — in other ways, so that you’re always warm, you’re always ready. But I think that’s what any understudy would say, not just on Broadway.
Being a Broadway understudy … well, if being an understudy means a lot of watching, then being a Broadway understudy — especially an understudy on this show, with these people — means that I get to watch the best of the best.
All of these actors, but also Bart [director Bartlett Sher (Oslo)] and Aaron, and Scott [co-producer Scott Rudin], and all of these amazing designers … what a room to be in. And everybody is there to work with their A-game every day.
And I can’t say it enough: Despite the immense pressure, everyone is nice.
The older I get, the more I value kindness, the more I value grace. And to find this kind of generosity in such a huge group of artists, well it really is awe-inspiring.
He is a master! And he has an incredible work ethic. And every night, he’s fresh and new. He’s doing the same show, but he really lives it.
I’ve worked with actors in the past who just hit their marks and sort of walk through it, but Jeff is pouring himself into this role, this huge role, and it shows. He is always exploring, always deepening.
He routinely surprises me, and I think he surprises himself — and I think that’s part of what makes him so great. All of that work he put into Atticus for months allows him to fly.
I remember one night being so moved by a scene of his, and feeling tears in my eyes, and looking around at the other actors on stage and realizing that we were all crying. We had all heard the scene over a hundred times at that point, and he still had the ability to move us like that.
And he does all of this without losing his sense of playfulness, his generosity, his ability to just be a genuinely kind guy.
He has always been ready with a joke and a laugh — often at his own expense — and in the next moment, he’s navigating a Sorkin monologue with laser sharpness. It has really been special to watch.
But, everyone is a master. The actors are all masters. Bart is a master. Aaron Sorkin is a master.
You mentioned this being a huge hit, and even in such a small role, I could feel how much pressure there was on this production. There were lot of eyes on us.
Watching all of these great artists stay cool under all of that pressure — that has been one of the great lessons of this process for me. What a remarkable gift to be part of a company like this.
I just heard that they are selling tickets for as late as November of 2019, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be with this show for a while yet. But, gosh, yes, absolutely — I love Philadelphia.
Philly was my first artistic home. My time in New York is still sort of just beginning, and I am excited to see how that continues to unfold, but no matter what happens, I can’t imagine ever not coming back to Philly.