The staircase in Brian Watkins’s play “Epiphany,” at Lincoln Center Theater, goes up and up. Tall and imposing, it’s the kind of centerpiece to a set that makes you wonder, when you arrive for a performance, who is going to be climbing and descending it.
The actor Marylouise Burke, for one, spends considerable time dashing up and down those steps, which she knew from the script would be in the show. So when her agent got a call asking her to play the lead role of Morkan, the warmly eccentric host of a dinner party fueled by existential desperation and touched with spiritual longing, she asked him to inquire: Was it going to be “a normal staircase or a crazy staircase?”
Not that she wasn’t tempted by the part, with which she had felt immediately simpatico since performing it in a prepandemic reading. But Burke, who is 81, diminutive and a longtime favorite of the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, shattered both wrists and her left kneecap two years ago when she tripped on a pothole in front of the West Village building where she has lived in a studio apartment since 1977.
And sometimes, she said the other afternoon, sitting a bit shyly for an interview in the theater’s glass-walled lobby, “you have a designer who decides that the floor is going to be absurd because the script is absurd or something like that. I just knew I needed it to be even steps going up. You know, they can’t all be different heights, or tilted.”
In John Lee Beatty’s design, they are neither. Burke is on perfectly solid ground, which leaves her free to do the destabilizing. That is something of a specialty of hers: luring an audience in with a portrayal that on its surface is so instantly fascinating that we never think to expect that there’s more underneath. And there is always, always more underneath — comic, tragic or very possibly both.
To Tyne Rafaeli, the director of “Epiphany,” Burke’s “particular brand of humor” and “ability to mask a simmering fragility” made her the ideal match for Morkan, a character who draws even new acquaintances toward her and elicits from them the impulse to help her.
“Marylouise is that,” Rafaeli said. “She has that effect on other artists. People who are around Marylouise, they want to collaborate with her. They want to lean toward her. She just has that kind of energetic pull. So the line between her and the character her is very thin, obviously.”
Morkan is for Burke a rare starring part. Another was Kimberly, the teenager with the rapid-aging disease in Lindsay-Abaire’s “Kimberly Akimbo,” a role she originated in 2001, long before the play morphed into a musical. A character actor, Burke has been performing on New York stages since she arrived in the city in 1973, when she was 32 and eager “to have more opportunities to act for free,” she said, kidding but not. “It never occurred to me that I would ever in my whole life get paid to act.”
It was another eight years before she got her Actors’ Equity card, in a tiny part in an Off Broadway production of Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Broken Pitcher,” starring Larry Pine. By now she has amassed nearly 50 years of New York theater credits — many in the strange downtown productions she loves, among them the title role in the Mabou Mines-Trick Saddle show “Imagining the Imaginary Invalid,” at La MaMa in 2016.
Her screen credits include movies like “Sideways,” in which she played the sprightly broken mother to Paul Giamatti’s middle-aged wreck, and television series like Netflix’s “Ozark,” in which she had a darkly delightful, Season 3 arc as the marriage therapist to Laura Linney and Jason Bateman’s extremely crimey central couple.
“I actually knew probably from the time I was 13 or 14 that I wanted to act,” Burke said from behind a white KN95 mask that engulfed her lower face. “But it seemed like such an impossible dream. And I never admitted that to anybody.”
She spent her childhood in Steelton, Pa., a Bethlehem Steel company town where her father owned a grocery store and her mother was a homemaker with comic timing that Burke inherited. The town was proud of its high school football team, and she played fight songs on clarinet in the school band at their games. But she didn’t know anyone who acted.
Her adolescence coincided with the cookie-cutter conservative age of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and her family’s expectation — “once they found out that I was smart” — was that she would become a teacher. Off at college, though, in what she called “a major rebellion,” she swiftly changed her major from education to English, with a philosophy minor, and started acting in school plays.
“I just always felt better when I was in a play,” she said, wrapping her arms protectively around her body, making herself even smaller. “I just always felt more who I was.”
Hang on, what is that arm-wrapping gesture about? Burke hesitated, considered. Then: “I’d like to be nice to that girl back there,” she said, meaning her young self her, the one with the “incongruous dream.”
After college she earned a master’s degree in English literature, and discovered as a teaching assistant that she hated getting up in front of a class to speak. Floundering after a brief marriage in her mid-20s, she found herself living with a sympathetic aunt in suburban Philadelphia, holding down day jobs and taking classes at night at the nearby Hedgerow Theater Company.
For years after she moved to New York, office jobs — copy editing, proofreading, word processing — kept her afloat. When “Kimberly Akimbo” opened Off Broadway in 2003, she said, five of her ex-bosses her came to see it with their wives.
She first worked with Lindsay-Abaire on his play “A Devil Inside” at Soho Rep in 1997; his “Fuddy Meers,” two years later at Manhattan Theater Club, was a career turning point, because casting directors started to notice her.
When Watkins asked Lindsay-Abaire about casting Burke for “Epiphany,” Lindsay-Abaire thought it would make perfect sense. While their plays are very different, he said, “there is that dual tone of funny grief that runs under both of our works.”
He told Watkins of Burke’s extraordinary devotion to playwrights, which Watkins marveled at nonetheless when she questioned him closely on the pronunciation he intended for the exclamation “Agh,” which appears repeatedly in her lines.
“That level of specificity is just a gift to a writer,” he said.
Even more strikingly, Burke was fighting through brain fog and physical fatigue to learn her lines, having Covid just before rehearsals started.
But Morkan is in her bones now — and Burke does, as Lindsay-Abaire said, come “bounding down those stairs like she was a 14-year-old.”
At a time when, she said, theater is still “not the same” as it was prepandemic, she feels grateful for Lincoln Center Theater’s caution about Covid protocols, and grateful that its audience is masked. She is also happy to be back onstage, alongside eight fellow actors, telling her character ‘s story her.
“It’s very precious to be going out there,” she said. “Going out there together.”