CAITLIN O'Connell draws on her mother's shared memories of life on Nebraska farm land to give dimension to her character of Alexandra Bergson in "O Pioneers!" currently at Center Stage.
The play, a drama with music adapted by Darrah Cloud with music by Kim D. Sherman, recounts Willa Cather's novel about a young Swedish immigrant who inherits her father's failing Nebraska farm and becomes the head of the family. Through great physical hardships and at the sacrifice of her dreams, Alexandra wrenches a prosperous life from the dusty earth of the prairie.
The journey that O'Connell takes as the compassionate but shrewd landowner is a lonely one of the heart. The woman pins all her hopes for a free existence outside the farm on her adored younger brother, Emil, with tragic consequences.
"Alexandra said as a young girl she wanted to travel, be in the real world," says O'Connell before a rehearsal at the Calvert Street theater. "But she doesn't want to leave the land at the end and finally comes to terms with herself, arriving at a point of peace."
The winsome, blond actress with bright blue eyes says that in developing her role she realized the land was as dominant a character as Alexandra.
Born of an Irish father and Welsh mother, O'Connell remembers her family's colorful stories of the hard early days on the Nebraska farm. "Mother still owns land out there. Land is our past," says the actress. "It adds a kind of connection to my homesteading in the play.
"Acting is a way I define who I am -- a wife, mother, actress and daughter," she says. O'Connell is married to Peter Hackett, a professional director and teacher who is a professor of drama at the University of Wisconsin. The couple has a 5-year-old son, Trevor.
Before this recent move, Hackett was teaching at Catholic University and the family resided in Silver Spring. O'Connell commuted to acting assignments at Center Stage and performed in such productions as "Reunion," "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," "There's One in Every Marriage" and more recently in "The Film Society."
As a child, O'Connell made up little plays and cast herself in the star roles. By the time she reached high school she knew she wanted to make the theater her life.
The classical actress received her degree in theater from San Diego State University and did some graduate work in drama at the University of California.
Several seasons of summer and winter stock led to an eight-year engagement at the Denver Center Theatre Company where she worked with her husband, the acting artistic director for new play development.
"There is where I got my professional training and Equity card," says O'Connell. While in Denver, she portrayed a variety of roles ranging from Molly Malone in "The Front Page" to Louka in George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man."
Last summer O'Connell played Mistress Ford opposite veteran actress Pat Carroll's acclaimed interpretation of Falstaff in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in Washington.
The actress has done little commercial work except for a solid cameo on a Perry Mason television movie, "The Case of the Avenging Ace," a few seasons back. She found it a totally different experience from the stage.
"I was the key witness on the stand at the end," says O'Connell. "I played the wife of one of the guys who was murdered. Raymond Burr and everyone in the cast and crew were joking and carrying on during rehearsal.
"Finally the director came up to me and said 'Now, really do it!' That was it. I assumed he meant he wanted me to cry. So I did and the scene was shot in one take."
Smiling, she adds, "One thing was a little disconcerting. Raymond reads everything from a tele-prompter. The rest of us memorized our lines. Raymond never looked at me, keeping his glance fixed over my shoulder at the prompter. There are three in strategic places. But the viewers never know. He is fabulous at it."
Interpreting roles for live theater is what the actress enjoys most. "Working on new plays in progress like 'O Pioneers!' is the real challenge," she says. "There have been significant changes in the play even now. Currently the authors are striking a whole number and adding a new one.
"The play started out to be a big 'Take It To Broadway' version, ala 'Oklahoma,'" she laughs. "But the principals don't sing and it didn't work when it was done in Boston.
"The producer let the option go, and the authors decided to rework it into its present shape -- not a musical but a play with music. The concentration is on the purity of Willa Cather's tale."
"O Pioneers!" continues at Center Stage through Dec. 23.