Amber Gray’s Ferocious Twist on the Goddess Persephone in “Hadestown”
Persephone, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility, and a daughter of Zeus, is walking through a garden plucking wildflowers one day when Hades, the god of the Underworld, whisks her away to his subterranean realm. There, Persephone and Hades strike a deal; she can return to the land above for six months every year, to kick off the spring and summer solstices. Then she has to return, across the River Styx, into the dark. Persephone’s domain is the giving of life; now, trapped half the time in a world of death, she is going a little crazy. Starved for sunlight, she has taken to the bottle, wobbling around in a drunken haze.
This version of Persephone—the soulful modern woman trapped in stifling surroundings—is the one who saunters onto the stage each night at the Walter Kerr Theatre, on Broadway, as one of the protagonists of the new musical “Hadestown,” a bluesy retelling of ancient myth set in a town that resembles Depression-era New Orleans. The show, which began as a concept album, from 2010, by the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and was developed for the stage by Rachel Chavkin, tells the tragedy of Eurydice, who sells her soul to Hades, and her lover, Orpheus, who must descend to the Underworld to try to get her back. But it’s Persephone, played by the thirty-eight-year-old actress Amber Gray, who steals every scene she’s in.
Gray, who is nominated for a Tony Award for the role, plays Persephone as a tornado of resentment and rascally rebellion. Hades (the great Patrick Page, in a slick pinstripe suit with a booming basso profundo) did not abduct her, as he does in ancient myth; he wooed her, he made promises. But in the course of hundreds of years his sweet nothings have turned sour. He keeps coming earlier and earlier to collect her from the sunlight and bring her back on a train to the Underworld, which he has converted into a steampunk sweatshop where the souls of the dead toil endlessly, building a wall to nowhere. When we first meet Persephone, she is still aboveground, carrying a giant basket filled with flowers and a bottle of red, like a woman headed to a debauched picnic. She wears a bright green velvet dress and a giant wig that looks like a cascade of fusilli pasta. She flashes a huge grin at the audience and takes a swig from her bottle. This is not Persephone as a naïve babe stolen from her mother’s garden; this is Persephone as Auntie Mame, or Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” or a Real Housewife of Mount Olympus.
When Gray is onstage—and she is onstage for most of the two-and-a-half-hour show—she never stops moving. She stomps, she slithers, she glides with a silvery liquidness that makes her seem both young and ancient at once. Her mighty singing voice is raspy and coquettish, with bombastic bursts of feeling, much like that of one of her idols, Eartha Kitt. (You can hear Gray in “Way Down Hadestown,” the first single from the “Hadestown” cast album.) She brings an equal ferociousness to her dancing. In a scene in the first act, when Hades summons her back to the Underworld early, she bends over ninety degrees at the waist and holds the position during an extended solo stomp-dance. Gray came up with the maneuver after Chavkin told her to act like Persephone was exorcising demons before a “funeral procession to hell.” “I was, like, ‘Oh, I’ve got you, sister,’ ” Gray said.
Offstage, Gray looks less like a Broadway diva than a grunge musician. When I met her one recent afternoon in her tiny dressing room at the Walter Kerr Theatre, she had her hair—shoulder-length and wavy—tucked under a slouchy hat and wore a black velvet duster coat with chic orange speckles all over it; she made the pattern herself by spraying the fabric with bleach. The room was equipped with a row of neti pots and a white plastic breast pump—Gray happens to be playing the goddess of fertility while nursing her second son. “I don’t think I need to use it now,” Gray said, looking down at her breasts. “I think I’ll do it at intermission.”
Gray first played Persephone Off Broadway, in 2016, at the New York Theatre Workshop. When she decided to reprise the role, at the National Theatre, in London, her younger son was just seven weeks old. Her partner, a metalworker, was loath to relocate their family. “He basically was, like, ‘Please, I’m begging you and please, I don’t want to get on the plane,’ ” she said. But Gray, who had an itinerant childhood as a military brat, was not going to let a little transatlantic move get in her way. She often stays with roles for years at a time: the one that first got her to Broadway was the saucy seductress Hélène in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” a musical based on a small sliver of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” that began as a ragtag production in a circus tent downtown.
At the beginning of the second act of “Hadestown,” Gray wanders onto the stage—now dressed in funeral black—with a hip flask and a sour look on her face. It is unclear, at first, if the scene has begun or if she is just lost; she prowls around, mugging at the crowd, narrowing her eyes. Then she sings a solo number, “Our Lady of the Underground,” a sultry cabaret act in which she twirls, growls, and flirts with members of the audience. This is Persephone at her lowest; the song is her wild cry for help. But, at the end of the show, she does not leave Hades or the Underworld behind. “I find that very realistic,” Gray told me. “People stay together after all sorts of horrors.” During a scene in which Hades and Persephone reconcile, Gray sometimes looks out into the audience and sees older couples putting their arms around each other. “They touch hands!” she said, growing misty. “I can’t even talk about it.”
The risk of playing a goddess is that people expect you to possess divine insights even offstage. Fans wait for Gray by the stage door every night, clutching the plastic red flowers that ushers hand to audience members as they exit. Her young fans, especially, seem to be looking to her for guidance—Persephone is a goddess, or at least a woman, who has found her way out of a dark place. “They start to think of me as the queen of things,” Gray said. “And I’m, like, ‘Oh, no, please, I don’t have all the answers for you.’ ”
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