In person, Ann Dowd, sweet, solicitous and ready to laugh at herself, is far removed from Gilead, the totalitarian state where Aunt Lydia, her alter ego on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” rules with an iron fist, doling out punishment for the slightest infraction. As she sips a cappuccino and raises her voice ever so slightly to compete with the whooshing sounds of a nearby subway or a fire truck’s siren, she confesses that she wonders why she agreed to tackle her next acting challenge. Dowd, you see, is about to launch a sold-out solo version of “Enemy of the People,” a production that will see the actor assume all the roles in Henrik Ibsen’s morality tale. Moreover, she’ll bring the story — about a town doctor who risks everything to expose a scandal involving contaminated water — to life in the Park Avenue Armory, a cavernous space that dwarfs even the largest Broadway venue.
“Theater was where I learned about acting. But stepping back into live theater on a regular basis is how you find out where your courage lies,” says Dowd.
This won’t be a literal adaptation, as one should expect from Robert Icke, the show’s director, who has previously put a modern spin on such canonical classics as “1984” and “Mary Stuart.” Instead, audiences sit with friends and family in pods and are asked to vote on the action of the play at key moments. The majority opinion then determines what direction the plot takes and how the story resolves.
“We’re asking important questions about does our democracy work?” Dowd notes. “How do we decide what’s the right thing to do?”
Those questions have a newfound urgency in a polarized America, where a yawning gulf exists between left and right, and even the idea of a subscribing to a shared set of facts is being challenged. In an age of QAnon and social media fueled conspiracy theories, the very notion of a “known world” is under attack.
“What is with our need to turn people into enemies,” asks Dowd. “That’s happening so much today. Without getting too much into politics, what happened to the Republican party? Isn’t their integrity worth more than being reelected. You’re going to sacrifice that for Trump? And when you hear someone like [far-right congresswoman] Marjorie Taylor Greene talk, you think, I’m sorry hon, but you’ve left the planet.”
For Dowd, “Enemy of the People” is the latest project in a whirlwind series of exciting film, television and theater turns. The actor’s career has been in overdrive since she earned critical raves for the 2012 indie “Compliance.” Since then she’s appeared in “Hereditary” and “The Leftovers” and, to Emmy-winning effect, on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s also earning Oscar buzz for her work in “Mass,” a drama about a meeting between the parents of the victim and the perpetrator of a mass shooting, which premiered to glowing reviews in Sundance and is scheduled for release this fall.
“It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had,” says Dowd. “That character showed up and she was loving and kind and broken.”
It must be hard to channel the all-encompassing grief required for “Mass” or the moral outrage needed for “Enemy of the People,” but Dowd says she learned an important lesson long ago.
“People always ask me about ‘Handmaid’s,’ how do you play someone so evil?” says Dowd. “It’s make-believe, babe. When I go home at night after a 16-hour day, you’re tired and you have your martini. The minute you start to suffer personally, you’ve got to stop.”