Actor Maria O’Brien grew up in a house packed with artists, guests of her father, Academy Award–winning actor Edmond O’Brien, and her musical-comedy-star mother, Olga San Juan. “My father had designed our house in Brentwood so that the living room was a stage. I have early memories of Vic Damone singing and Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano.”
For O’Brien, what was most striking about watching her father work was the behind-the-scenes camaraderie of the artists, something on which the company she’s currently working with, Padua Playwrights Productions, prides itself. (O’Brien has played major roles in two of the three Murray Mednick plays that constitute Padua’s inaugural season — an aging vaudevillian in 16 Routinesand Mrs. Feuerstein, the wise, furious survivor of an anti-Semitic purge in Poland. See accompanying article.) “I’m a character actress really,” says O’Brien, a youthful-looking mother of three adult children, on the day we met in a West Hollywood coffeehouse.
Patrons who caught 16 Routines earlier this year inevitably remarked on “the girl with the voice” — on how she memorably repeated “What?” in a pitch-pipe treble and Brooklyn dialect. Describing her inspiration for the role, O’Brien recalls a childhood encounter: “Out of nowhere I heard this jet-engine voice booming, ‘No honey, the other shelf.’ I ran to the other side of Robinsons to see Ethel Merman shopping.”
The blond, tan, expressive O’Brien would seem to be odd casting for the traumatized Mrs. Feuerstein. “There were two real people from whom I drew inspiration,” she explains. “One is Inga Friedman, a tiny woman with an enormous personality who escaped the Holocaust as a child. The other is my former landlady Esther Sky, who survived the camps.” Referring to the play’s more disturbing elements, O’Brien says, “It isn’t just about the Holocaust — it’s also about vengeance and the projection of evil. It’s a rare play that allows this much anger to be expressed onstage.”