“Mom doesn’t dance too much,” Karen Ziemba says, a bit wistfully, of her latest performance. The statement, and how the Tony-winning actress says it, demonstrates how Kid Victory, the Tony winner’s current project, is a marked and slightly bittersweet change from her previous shows.
Differences aside, there is one thing that remains constant about Ziemba’s career, including Kid Victory, and that is John Kander. The prolific and Tony-winning composer, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in March, will soon open his latest project, a new original musical that narrates the aftermath of a kidnapping. Kander’s second collaboration with bookwriter and lyricist Greg Pierce, Kid Victory opens at the Vineyard Theater February 22.
Ziemba plays Eileen, the mother of Luke, played by Brandon Flynn, who returns home one year after being kidnapped. Despise having suffered from the loss of her son, Eileen is determinedly cheerful and optimistic about his future, even when he is clearly struggling to adjust to life at home. Eileen differs greatly from characters Ziemba has played in the past, which include murderess and aspiring star Roxie Hart in Chicago, established celebrity Rita Racine in Steel Pier and songwriter Georgia Hendricks in Curtains.
“This is going to be a different KZ,” Ziemba recalled Kander saying to her about the show. “You’ve never done something like this before.”
But Eileen is no stranger to Ziemba, who drew from her personal history and experiences growing up in the Midwest with a religious family, as well as interactions with loved ones, to create her. “I understand this woman. I know people like that,” she said. “I understand the feelings of what is right and wrong, what is the best way to do things, and sometimes realizing now, after that, it wasn’t always the best way to deal with problems of the mind. When someone is mentally damaged from something or has issues, you can’t pray it away. But that’s what this woman knows, and so we all move through a learning process through this story. Each of us is thrust into some kind of place that we have not been before and starting to get it.”
A devoutly spiritual woman, Eileen remains convinced that praying and faith in God will heal her son and, rather than helping him find a therapist, asks a friend from church to counsel him – with little success. Ziemba, who was raised as a Methodist but was a self-proclaimed misfit because of her love for dancing, feels sympathy for that mentality and the need to ensure “everything’s OK.” But as the audience soon learns, Eileen doesn’t know that her son is keeping a very big secret—one of the reasons he disappeared—from her.
“The situation in this play is very intense and dangerous,” she said. “But, in little ways, I think that happens a lot between parents and children, and people feel they can’t tell something about themselves because they feel they’re going to be admonished or not accepted or cast out… So you just keep your mouth shut about it, and you need somebody to talk to.”
In Kid Victory, it is his sexuality that Luke is keeping secret from his parents. Revealed through a series of flashbacks, the audience sees him talking with his abductor online and the way in which he disappeared, as well as the horrors that he endured as a captive of Michael, played by Jeffrey Denman. But when he is back at home with his parents, he struggles with re-acclimating to his small, religious community while keeping details of his abduction a secret.
“Things have to be all right and you have to be OK. ‘You’re my kid. I’m OK, you’re OK. Don’t talk about it,’” she said, describing Eileen’s mentality. “It exacerbates to the point of where somebody just takes off or commits a terrible act of hurting themselves in some way. But his was, of course, finding solace elsewhere and finding his social life on the Internet, which I think is very common.”
Luke’s terror of telling his parents the truth resonates strongly in America’s current political climate of fear and intolerance, which Ziemba feels is becoming more and more apparent: “It’s really being brought of the forefront more than we realize,” she said. “And there’s a very large faction of people who think their way is the right way. They can’t even just be tolerant of someone else’s beliefs.”
Last seen on Broadway in 2014’s Bullets Over Broadway, Ziemba made her main stem debut in 1980 as hoofer Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Over the years, her roles have progressed from the aspiring ingénue to the more seasoned veteran, a change that comes with new challenges she welcomes.
“I think that roles for ‘women of a certain age’—middle aged women—are much more interesting and fascinating,” she said. “Those women are very interesting. There’s a lot of history there, a lot of baggage there. But there’s also a lot of life. They’re a socialized people. They know what’s going on. They have a lot to impart.”
It was for playing a wife in the musical “dance play” Contact that Ziemba earned her first Tony Award, for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Her dancing talents have earned her acclaim over the years, especially in shows with Kander, who she describes as being an “uncle, mentor and friend and somewhat of an icon.”
Reflecting on when she first learned about Kid Victory, she immediately said, “Usually, when someone asks me to do something when John Kander is involved, I say, ‘How high do you want me to jump?’”
Knowing Ziemba’s talents, that could be a tall order.