Julia Coffey grew up in Washington, D.C. “I went to National Cathedral School,” the actor said. “And in the fourth grade, we did a bunch of Shakespeare and I played Ophelia — that was where the bug bit.”
She said her parents took her to the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger, back when Michael Kahn was the artistic director. “I was always front and center in the balcony; you couldn’t tear me away,” she recalled, laughing. “By the time I left high school, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”
A bachelor of arts degree from Florida State University led to stints in Los Angeles and then to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Now, after settling in New York, she is back in the D.C. area with her first role at Olney Theatre Center.
It’s not Shakespeare: Coffey stars with M. Scott McLean in “Labour of Love,” a political comedy by contemporary British playwright James Graham staged in the in Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. Still, she said, the parallels with the Bard are there. “It’s so much like Shakespeare,” said Coffey. “There’s so much musicality and it’s so tightly written that you don’t have to ‘muscle’ it. All you have to do is serve the script.”
That script concerns the political career (and personal life) of a fictional Member of Parliament named David Lyons and his constituency manager Jean Whittaker. It covers 27 years of British politics, zigzagging through time and examining the philosophies not only of the Labour and Conservative parties, but also of individuals who share ideologies — at least on the surface.
Coffey described the play as “farcical. It’s very British in that beautiful, razor-edge that they’re so good at — where everything means a lot. There’s a sleekness to the script, to the characters’ lives. A lot happens, but it moves very quickly and there’s this deftness, farcical deftness, within the writing.”
Chock-full of jokes and salty language, “Labour of Love,” directed by Leora Morris, is a romance, too. “A rom-com,” said Coffey, who portrays Jean. “You get to know these two individuals deeply, and follow them, hopefully cheering and shouting, to finally get together at the end.”
M. Scott McLean, who plays MP Lyons, describes “Labour of Love” as “a political romantic comedy. It’s a love story that takes place over 25 years; it centers around a friendship that deepens over time. And it correlates with the journey of the Labour Party over the course of 25 years.”
McLean grew up in Heber, Utah, about 40 miles east of Salt Lake City. Acting, he said, “is something I’ve wanted to do as long as I knew it was something you could do.” He remembers watching the 1981 movie version of “The Lone Ranger,” with Christopher Lloyd playing villainous Butch Cavendish. “I think it cast a spell on me,” he said. It inspired him to dress as Cavendish “for the next three Halloweens” and got him started on acting camps and high school musicals. And ultimately, it led him to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for an associate’s degree in acting and to Denver’s National Theater Conservatory for a master’s degree.
Despite his all-American background, McLean sees “Labour of Love” as a play that has universal appeal because of the way its author draws his characters. “It’s accessible,” he said. “There are so many parallels. I think people will say ‘Oh my goodness, we’re struggling with a lot of the same things they’re struggling with in their party.’”
He pointed out that the symbolic political colors, red and blue, have opposite meaning in Britain, with blue standing for the Conservative party and red for more progressive Labour. “The colors are changed, but the human qualities are exactly the same. It’s very relatable.”
He credited the playwright. Indeed, Graham — who is only 36 — is considered one of Britain’s most important contemporary playwrights. He’s certainly prolific; in addition to writing the book for “Finding Neverland,” which landed on Broadway in 2015, he has written nearly two dozen plays and recently had three productions running concurrently on London’s West End.
“He’s such a smart — really brilliant — playwright,” said McLean. “And ‘Labour of Love’ is a really entertaining romantic comedy, in addition to having something to say about how we take care of each other as a community.”
Health care and help for senior citizens are “universal concerns,” McLean said. And he is confident that “Labour of Love” has the power to captivate audiences through sheer humanity. It’s relatable, he believes, because it’s as much about people as issues, and it underscores the political with the personal.
“That’s the amazing thing about James Graham,” he added. “He’s able to have these really smart, really strong characters giving a lot of information about the party and the struggles that are happening within the party. And as that’s happening, these characters are revealed, their stories are revealed, the evolution of this relationship is revealed. It’s the activity; it’s the passion. We get to see these people doing what they love to do.”
What Coffey loves to do is observe the British. “I’m a huge Anglophile,” she said. “I’ve watched basically every British TV series ever made.”
She also loves watching the British parliamentary process. “Oh, it’s so wonderful!” she said. “For the Brits, language is so key; they have such an amazing history with language—and the way (politicians) speak to each other on the floor of Parliament! They’ll yell at each other, make jokes about each other, and whether they have thick skin or great wit, they have great comebacks. They debate and try to move the needle that way; they come off the floor ribbing each other and joking. Watching that has been very informative.”
McLean classified himself as “not really political,” while Coffey acknowledged that growing up in D.C., she “sort of took politics for granted.
“I thought it was normal that your classmates all head down to the mall to march on issues, or that you have Women in Power Day at school. And because I took it for granted, I wasn’t focused on politics for a long time.”
Current circumstances, she added, “make me pay more attention to it than when I was younger.” And Graham’s “farce-rom-com with a political twist” has helped her focus on the issues in British politics that also color the political landscape here in the states.
“Do you serve your local community, or do you serve your national identity because that may eventually help your local community?” she mused, noting that in “Labour of Love,” Jean pushes David to serve the community, while David thinks about climbing the ranks of the party, so he can do more good.
“Which I think probably translates to a lot of the senators and congressmen who serve here,” she said. “It’s a game — and how do you play both sides in order to help your constituents?
“This is a global phenomenon. We’re not alone in what’s happening — the divide in our country. This play is very much about that as well.”
“Labour of Love” runs through Oct. 28 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2002 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. An audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired is set for 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10 and a Sign-interpreted performance for 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18. Tickets start at $54, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.