Actress Jessica Lundy was mostly working TV guest starring roles when she landed the part of Roberta in John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" last month. The searing play spotlights two survivors who meet, clash, have sex, reveal secrets and begin to heal one another. Lundy's character, an incest victim, cajoles and physically tussles with Danny (Matthew Klein).
"Initially, I thought, 'My God, I don't know if I can do this; I'm really scared," said the Jewish actress, who played Gloria on the hit sitcom "Hope & Gloria." "I'm not known for theater and the role is much darker than anything I've ever done."
Klein, however, thinks Lundy "brings a wonderful, unpredictable quality to the role. She can switch in an instant from one emotional extreme to another."
If the fictional Roberta is a scrappy survivor, so is Lundy. With her Catholic mother and Jewish father, she grew up in a "preppy, WASPy" Avon, Conn., where Jews weren't allowed to play golf at the country club. Nevertheless, she said, she "always strongly identified with being Jewish.... Jewish survival despite centuries of persecution is inspirational because there's been no surrender or sense of defeat."
Lundy had an easier journey as a young actress. By 21, she was playing Jackie Mason's daughter in "Caddyshack II"; in 1991, she landed her first sitcom, "Over My Dead Body."
When the film and TV jobs began dwindling several years ago -- partly because of the dearth of roles for women over 30 -- she began looking for theater work.
Her career angst helped her to identify with the desperate character of Roberta: "I've had moments of despair when I've felt 'This is the end of the road for me,'" she said.
Rehearsing the play has proved intense.
"Every day I'd come home exhausted and dirty because we were crawling on the floor and sweating and battered from the raw, ugly emotions," she said, hoarse from shouting her lines. "Sometimes I find myself thinking like the character offstage: Everything feels more sensitive and irritating and I can't hold back my anger, frustration or disgust quite as well.... But while this kind of role can strip you bare, it's also thrilling. When I said I wanted to be an actress as a child, this is what I meant."
The play runs Oct. 7-28 at Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 229-5295.