06/22/2012 03:51 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Streep, on the Sidelines

Meryl Streep played Juliet to Kevin Kline's Romeo in New York on Monday night, headlining a star-studded reading of Shakespeare's early tragic masterpiece at the Public Theater Gala in Central Park.

Although the production featured several notable actors in the supporting cast (Sam Waterston, Christine Baranski, and Christopher Walken among them), and Kline acted with precision and sensitivity, all eyes were on Streep; artistic Director Oskar Eustis only heightened the anticipation in his opening remarks, referring to Streep as "God."

Needless to say, expectations were high.

In fact, I found myself watching Streep not only when she was actively participating in a scene, but also in the moments before and after.

The reading, for which the actors were on book, was staged so that the entire ensemble sat in chairs onstage when not speaking. To speak, they "entered" from stage right and left to center stage, stepped into spotlights, and placed their scripts on music stands.

Streep wore her hair swept half-up off her shoulders, and a shimmery blue tunic top that hinted at the medieval dress a more traditional Juliet might wear.

While Juliet's first line does not come until Act I, Scene III, the un-spotlit Streep attracted my attention from the sidelines during the opening scenes of the play, throughout which she repeatedly jiggled her legs, rolled her head, took visibly deep breaths, and put her face to her palms in concentration.

Perhaps it was playing a 14-year-old girl at 62. Perhaps it was the challenge and relative unfamiliarity of live performance (Streep's last official theater credit before Monday was the Public Theater's production of Mother Courage in 2006).

Could it be? Was Streep nervous?

She shouldn't have been.

She read Juliet with gusto, playing up the role's comic and sexual undertones. While she might not have quite put in the prep work to match Kline, who memorized entire monologues, Streep still won over the crowd.

And she hammered home the big moments: there she was on the balcony; yes, that was the lark, not the nightingale; no, there was no drop left for her.

But for me, the real action took place just left of center stage, at a dimly lit spot where Streep gathered herself and became Juliet, and Juliet exhaled and became Streep again.

What brilliant staging -- to provide the audience this access to a legendary actress on the fringes of her imaginative process, getting into and out of character, neither onstage nor off.