Always Impressive

One of the most striking performances in Liberal Arts comes from the immensely talented Allison Janney ’82, who exudes caustic sophistication as Professor Judith Fairfield. Josh Radnor’s character, Jesse, remembers Fairfield as the English professor who made him fall in love with literature. Now, returning to his alma mater, he finds her as brilliant as ever, but cold and jaded, haughtily sensuous, and, in her own way, touched by longings not unlike his own.

It’s a great part, and for those of us in the Kenyon drama family who have followed Janney’s career, it’s no surprise that she nails it (and, in the process, all but steals the show). Over the course of thirty years, this versatile actress has inhabited a stunning array of roles in both film and television that she has turned into popular favorites.

Some of those roles have been brilliantly comic, belying the graceful figure we’ve come to recognize at awards ceremonies. From her earliest days at Kenyon, Janney has been an actress unafraid to make us laugh by laughing at herself. Tom Turgeon, emeritus professor of drama, tells the story of his Bolton production of Round and Round the Garden, in which he asked Janney to find a way to get stuck in the patio furniture. Each night she discovered a new, hilarious mode of entanglement. (Her finesse as a pratfall artist would come in handy on The West Wing, where she once had to tumble into a swimming pool, and in Primary Colors, where she had to trip up the stairs.)

What impresses audiences most, though, is Janney’s range and reach. Television viewers relished her intensity as presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg on the NBC hit The West Wing. Filmgoers have enjoyed her virtuosity in roles ranging from a depressed wife in American Beauty, to a dying southern belle in The Help, to the stepmother in Juno, to an awkward schoolteacher in Primary Colors. And they have heard her as the voice of Peach in the animated film Finding Nemo. In Judith Fairfield, she brings to sizzling life another character that audiences will love.

What the mainstream audience doesn’t know—but we at Kenyon do—is that Janney created Professor Fairfield in part by channeling the mannerisms of our own Harlene Marley, an emeritus drama professor with whom Janney (and many of us, including Josh Radnor) studied. The fictional Fairfield has none of Harlene’s generosity and joie de vivre, but she does have a regal presence that will be recognizable to alumni who were mesmerized by Harlene’s perfect posture, flawless diction, scintillating intelligence, and worldly mystique.

Janney masterfully playing a Radnor-written role by drawing on Marley, their shared Kenyon mentor: another dimension of artistry amid the many pleasures of Liberal Arts.

—Jonathan Tazewell, Thomas Turgeon Professor of Drama