Actress Karen Janes Woditsch is used to hearing stage directions such as "stand up straighter" and "remember to tower."
Woditsch is 5-ft-9-inches. But she's playing kitchen icon Julia Child, who was a sky-high 6-ft-2-inches.
"Not only was she larger-than-life in her height, but she had a larger-than-life personality to match," said Woditsch, who is reprising her role as Child when Broadway In Chicago hosts a return run of "To Master the Art" playing the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut, for a limited engagement now until Oct. 20. The Chicago Commercial Collective is producing this run of hit by William Brown and Doug Frew from TimeLine Theatre, which had its world premiere in Chicago in 2010.
Directed by William Brown, six of the 10 cast members are returning from the TimeLine production including Woditsch as Child and Craig Spidle returning as her husband Paul Child. Other returning cast members include Jeannie Affelder, Ian Paul Custer, TimeLine Associate Artist Terry Hamilton and TimeLine Company Member Juliet Hart, joined for this run by Sam Ashdown, TimeLine Company Member Janet Ulrich Brooks, Heidi Kettenring and Brian Plocharczyck.
Spidle said the stage story delves deep into the relationship of the famed couple, who would have celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary this month.
"Paul was happy that Julia found a connection to cooking and was so very passionate about it," said Spidle, who loves to see the expression on the faces of the audience as they smell eggs scrambling and onions sauteing on stage.
"But I believe he was also envious of her because at the time this play is set, he wasn't yet following his true career dreams."
Commissioned by TimeLine Theatre Company, "To Master the Art" recalls the adventure and romance of Julia and Paul Child's journey of discovery to Paris during the 1950s. From the bistro where Julia fell in love with food, to the kitchen table where she recreated everything learned during cooking class, to a room where Paul was grilled by U.S. agents about alleged Communist contact, Woditsch describes it as an epic love story of the larger-than-life culinary icon and her remarkable husband as they struggle to find themselves as Americans abroad.
"Never in a million years was this role playing Julia Child ever on my radar," Woditsch said.
"Growing up, she was on our TV all the time and my grandma Julie and my sister Julia were always big fans. So when I said yes to this play, I knew the toughest critics would be my own family members."
Woditsch said she accepted the role shortly after the play was written in 2008 as a Chicago-born play and then workshoped. The initial idea of "To Master the Art" came from TimeLine Company members during an artistic retreat in the summer of 2006. An official commission in 2008 with Brown and Frew culminated in the developmental workshop and in the play's world premiere in 2010. The development of "To Master the Art" has been partially supported by The Dramatists Guild Fund.
"This play was already in the reading stages before Meryl Streep became Julia on the big screen with Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul in 2009 in 'Julie & Julia,'" Woditsch reminded.
"So, I purposely never saw the film when I was preparing for this role, to assure my style and characterization would be my own. What I did to is watch many, many episodes of her PBS series. I was both honored and terrified with the thought of playing Julia Child."
She said three traits of the late Child, who died at age 91 in 2004 and would turn 101 in August 2013, helped her find the proper persona to portray Child on stage.
"It helped to wear a short string of pearls like Julia would and also to follow her same stance and movements in the kitchen," she said.
"She would often stand with her hands behind her back while talking."
As for her unique voice, Woditsch said she used Child's warbling of the word "potatoes" to inspire her stage vocals delivery.
"I was very careful at the beginning, to not come off sounding like Dan Aykroyd doing his 'Saturday Night Live' impersonation. So I started out easy. I loved the way Julia would say the word 'potatoes,' using big vowels. Before every performance, that's the word I say and think of before I go on stage."
TimeLine Theatre Company Artistic Director PJ Powers said not only did Child revolutionize the world of food and "teach many how to live life more fully with fearlessness and grace," but he said she continually reminded others about "the sacredness of the kitchen table."