For Jane Kaczmarek, settling back into theater roles has been a lot like coming home.
Following a warp-speed career spanning some 40 years, more than 40 television roles and multiple Broadway plays, the seven-time Emmy-nominated actress has nested recently at the Pasadena Playhouse to headline the play “Our Town,” which runs through Oct. 22.
“I fell in love with theater long before I knew what it was to fall in love with another person,” said Kaczmarek, a one-time San Marino resident who now lives in Pasadena, just a few miles from the theater. “There’s a T.S. Eliot quote that I love … ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ That’s how theater feels to me.”
Sitting down recently to discuss her new trajectory, the 61-year-old mother of three leaned back into a cozy white couch in her down-to-earth Monterey Colonial home, surrounded by sunny yellow walls, a potpourri of colorful modern art, a collage of her children’s masterpieces and furniture that includes early American antiques, Moroccan treasures and Home Goods pieces. Born and bred in Wisconsin, Kaczmarek proudly embraces her Polish heritage and Midwestern roots.
“I love this house,” said Kaczmarek, while her two dogs, Sir “Frances” Drake (named after her daughter) and Lucy, adopted from the Pasadena Humane Society, clamber at her feet and soon in her lap. “I love being home and having my kids home; it is such a luxury to be working five minutes away, walking home from the Playhouse, to tuck my children in and talk to them at night.”
Her television years on “Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-2006) catapulted her to fame, as Kaczmarek brought a fierce, biting energy to the role of Lois, the mother of four precocious boys trying to maintain a semblance of control. Critics hailed her comedic talents and called her portrayal of Lois a “true breakout character.” Apart from the Emmy’s, she also earned three Golden Globe Award nominations, two Screen Actors Guild nominations, two Television Critics’ Association Awards and the American Comedy Award and Family Television Award.
During that period, Kaczmarek and her then-husband, actor Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”), were filming two hit shows and also had two more children. She looks back on those years with a long-winded exhale, saying “Those were heady times.”
“There was this period of one week, when the phone rings one day and they say ‘the West Wing has been picked up,’ and the next day Fox called and said ‘Malcolm has been picked up,’ and the next day my doctor called and told me I was pregnant,” she said. “And I remember saying, ‘Gee, I wonder if our lives are going to change?’”
While frequenting the nonstop awards show circuit, Kaczmarek created “The Clothes Off Our Back,” a nonprofit for children that auctions off designer clothes worn by celebrities on the red carpets. The nonprofit garnered some $4 million for children’s organizations across the globe, and also gave Kaczmarek a passion for travel, philanthropy and giving back to her community.
But ultimately, the actors’ marriage could not maintain the frenetic pace, and the two divorced in 2010.
“It was heartbreaking when it ended. But after a lot of sadness, I have come into a wonderful place,” she said. “Getting through that divorce was really coming to terms with what I wanted instead of what I wanted everything to look like. And what I’ve realized is, I love doing things on my own. My friendships have grown so true and so deep; they are now very important to me.”
Kaczmarek is dedicated to her three children, Frances, George and Mary, and prides herself on teaching them some of the down-to-earth lessons she grew up with in Wisconsin. There might even be some parallels to her and her infamous reprisal of Lois, who came up with creative punishments for her TV children, like forcing them to lie with their heads under the couch so they had to stare at all the dustballs, dirty socks and discarded pizza crusts.
“One time, I was so fed up with (my own kids) leaving all the lights on, I unscrewed all the light bulbs in their rooms,” she said, laughing. “The thought of my kids being entitled is just painful to me … I try to teach them austerity. If I’m not working, we don’t eat sushi, you know? We go to the dollar store to get candy before the movies.”
Kaczmarek loves to study, continuing UCLA extension classes in her spare time. She previously attended the University of Wisconsin, majoring in theater, and graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, where she was part of its theater company. Although she loves acting in all its forms, she says she’s “grateful to all that TV, because it’s allowed me to do all this theater now.”
She is thrilled to bring back some of that old-school drama charm to the Pasadena Playhouse, where she became a board member earlier this year as part of the theater’s revamping with its new Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman.
“This is really exciting — the Playhouse rejuvenation with this forward-thinking guy (Feldman),” said Kaczmarek, who, partly thinking out loud, considers opening up her back house to young theater players who need a place to stay, perhaps making it a small boarding house. “I’d be a boarding board member,” she quips, laughing.
When Pasadena Playhouse Board Chairman Brad King heard of her idea, he laughed, saying “Uh-oh, I hope she doesn’t make me open up my back house, too.”
The Pasadena Playhouse is the state theater of California, but after many years of disarray and financial uncertainty, King’s focus is to bring it back to its original glory as one of the best regional theaters in the country.
“Part of our rebuilding and resetting is to create a financially stable organization and leverage our resources,” King said. “We felt Jane is a perfect match for the board — we benefit from her creativity and her passion for doing great work. She really wants to drive back into the organization the concept of a learning school, having it become a center again for theatrical community and getting back to building community engagement. For her to be involved in guiding the end-product opens up many artistic possibilities,” he said.
The first play under Feldman’s directorship, “Our Town,” is being co-produced with Deaf West Theatre, and performed in American Sign Language and spoken English. It’s a throwback to the Playhouse roots, where it was performed in 1939. Widely known as the “greatest American play,” the work is said to be a healing tribute to human connection. Kaczmarek takes on the role of “Stage Manager,” traditionally played by a man.
“Like any great piece of art, it’s really relevant today even more than when it was written … we are looking at a great classic with a 2017 lens,” said Feldman, who heaps praise on Kaczmarek as the starring lead.
“Jane masterfully has that warmth and connection to the audience. There’s something beautiful about her in person, addressing her community,” he said, also noting her importance in Pasadena.
Apart from acting, Kaczmarek is also busy volunteering on the Pasadena Educational Foundation as a proponent for Pasadena Unified Public Schools. Although her three children have attended Pasadena’s Polytechnic school, she is passionate about public schools and the work PEF has done. She is also on the Pasadena Conservatory of Music board, which stokes her love of classical music.
“Jane is a force of nature,” Feldman said. “There are truly fantastic artists in our community and she is one of them. She’s the epitome of Pasadena, her love for her community and for the arts and for the Pasadena Playhouse is very inspiring.”
Kaczmarek said she is excited to continue to be a part of the Playhouse, helping it grow and perhaps “doing one or two plays” a year there. “I know (Feldman) will bring in really top-notch directors and people who are really at the top of their game in this business.”