TORONTO — Marion Ross, best known as the lovable Mrs. Cunningham, or Mrs. C., on the 1974-’84 TV sitcom Happy Days, isn’t playing even likable when she comes to Toronto.
She’ll be tackling the role of the intimidating Grandma Kurnitz in the Neil Simon play Lost in Yonkers, presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.
The play focuses on two young brothers, Arty and Jay, who are left in the care of their grandmother, in Yonkers, N.Y., during the summer of 1942. This is Ross’ first time in this role, although she played a Jewish grandmother in the TV series Brooklyn Bridge.
Ross says she understands Grandma Kurnitz completely and has great sympathy for her. She says Simon is funny, but her character is hateful and she doesn’t intend to soften her at all.
“There’s very little growth in this old woman. She doesn’t change. All she knows and teaches her children is to survive at any cost. I have seen that in many older women who have had to carry the load of raising their children alone. They are tired and they are mad.
“She’s obviously come to America after World War I, because this is a World War II story. She runs an ice cream store and works six days a week. She has lost her husband and two of her children. When she was a child in Germany, they beat her with sticks and she learned to be tough,” Ross says.
“Her one daughter, Bella, didn’t learn to speak until she was five years old. She was born with scarlet fever and is not quite right. She has one son who is a criminal on the street, and she has a needy son, whose wife has died and has to take this job on the road salvaging metals, so he asks his mother to take his two boys.”
Ross says the grandmother objects to taking care of the boys, citing that she’s an old woman who has already raised six children and who feels life has treated her poorly, and has no room in her home, but her daughter, Bella, invites the boys to move in.
Ross will share the stage with Linda Kash as Bella, Sheila McCarthy as Gert, Ari Cohen as Louie, Alesdandro Costantini as Jay, and Jesse Shimko as his brother, Arty. The theatre’s co-artistic director, David Eisner, makes his Harold Green Theatre debut in the role of Eddie, and the play is directed by Jim Warren.
Ross has five Emmy Award nominations to her name, including two for Mrs. C.
The Minnesota-born actress, whose husband, Paul, died last July, feels she needs to keep her life filled up and is looking forward to her time in Toronto, having worked here in the past on television series. While here, she plans to meet with members of her late Canadian mother’s side of the family, who live in Ontario.
Now living in San Fernando Valley, Calif., in a country-style home she calls Happy Days Farm, she is the mother of two grown children and has three grandchildren. Although not Jewish herself, her daughter, Ellen Kreamer, who wrote for Friends and The New Adventures of Old Christine and just created the show I Hate My Teenage Daughter, is married to a Jew. Her son, Jim Meskimen, is an actor and an impressionist.
Lost in Yonkers is at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, from May 12 to June 10. For tickets to the play and Conversations on the Green, to hear host Ralph Benmergui interview Ross on May 14 at 8 p.m., call 416-366-7723 or visit online at www.stlc.com.