07/05/2012 11:20 am ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

Mabel Cantwell Is Such a Nice Woman

I realized something amazing recently -- I've seen Kerry Butler in nine musicals since I started reporting on the theater (circa mid-2000ish). Only one of those shows was out of town, five were on Broadway, three off. This may not seem that astounding, but when you factor in that she was the leading lady in the majority of these, you have to know that is a lot of singing. In all these years, I had never seen her in a play, not even in a reading of one. That changed this year when Gore Vidal's The Best Man opened. There, alongside television and film favorites, was Butler.

"I was thinking I wanted to do a play," Butler explained, "but I did not dream it would be anywhere near this big. [When I heard the rest of the cast] I was thinking I might have the tiniest role ever -- which is fine, I would have been the cleaning lady that comes in for one scene -- but this is far from that."

When The Best Man opened, Butler -- the last actor to sign on -- was one of two (out of eight) above-the-title performers who would not be instantly recognizable to television or film fans (the other being Jefferson Mays). She was understandably nervous -- after all, here she was making her major straight-play debut alongside Darth Vader, Murphy Brown, Dan Fielding and Will Truman.

"I was crazy intimidated," she stated, adding that producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel nicely threw a cocktail party for the cast before the start of rehearsals to help calm some cast members' inevitable star-struck jitters.

I might have been the only one to meet with the dialect coach before we started rehearsals. I did so much work before we started. I was so nervous even being in the room with all these people -- being the person who doesn't belong in this picture.

Well, Butler got through it. She is a long way from that cocktail party; Butler is getting ready to play her final performance as Mabel Cantwell, wife of Eric McCormack's Senator Joseph Cantwell, on July 8. Along the way, she has been seen by a whole new audience, picked up some positive notices (and a couple not-so-positive), grown a little edible garden on her dressing room's fire escape and made some pretty impressive friends. Oh, and incidentally, a few weeks ago, while doing eight shows a week, she adopted an 11-month-old baby girl from Ethiopia. (Her older daughter was also adopted from Ethiopia.)

Plus, she got to play a fun character and be in a play (which, as Butler agrees, is a lot easier a gig than being in a musical). Mabel is a great part -- a fairly significant featured player, she's all southern sweetness on the outside, cunning and manipulative on the inside. She exclaims, "Oh, how I hate politics!" during Act III, but the audience knows she loves it.

Butler -- who gleefully admits to her love of politics and describes herself as "a little big of an activist" -- draws on her own energetic personality to make Mabel a more hyper creature than she seemed when Christine Ebersole played her in the last revival. It works because you can imagine this character having pent-up energy, the type of energy she cannot always express in public. Only time will tell how Kristin Davis, the production's next Mabel, will interpret her character. There is a lot of room for her to make Mabel her own, especially because she will be playing against a new hubby, John Stamos.

As for Butler, she is sad to see The Best Man go, yet looking forward to spending time with her new daughter and the rest of her family. I have a distinct feeling she'll be back on Broadway soon enough; Butler, like Mabel, relishes life in the spotlight.