Family drama: mother, son light up stage

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 2, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
You have to wonder sometimes if a flair for the dramatic isn’t coded in the DNA somewhere. Drew Barrymore, of course, follows in the venerable footsteps of the Hollywood royalty that came before her, and there are plenty of other examples.
Locally, Mary Ann McCubbin and her son Jonathan Elliott Coarsey offer additional evidence that talent runs in families.
Between the two of them, they’ve got three lead roles in current productions.
You will not generallly find either Mary Ann or Jonathan in the background,
Mary Ann, a well know actress in these parts, will be playing the iconic role of Martha in the St. Thomas Players’ production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which opens April 7 in Salisbury.
In the movie version, Elizabeth Taylor famously played Martha to Richard Burton’s George. McCubbin will be paired with Bob Paolino as George.
And Jonathan has not one but two lead roles in Charlotte productions opening soon: “Lyle the Crocodile” and “Chess.”
Although she’s an ESL teacher in her day job, McCubbin has been much-recognized for her acting. She’s won several Metrolina Theatre Awards, one for best supporting actress in Piedmont Players’ “Coconuts” and another, more recently, for her role in St. Thomas Players’ “Rabbit Hole.”
She’s received a slew of other awards as well.
Mary Ann’s son, Jonathan, began his life onstage at 18 months old, when he was dressed up and put on stage to smile and be cute. He was happy to comply.
He remembers that his first grade teacher at Isenberg Elementary staged a play, which he starred in. He also won a school talent show that same year.
When he was 8, Coarsey tried out for Piedmont Players Theatre’s “Charlotte’s Web.” He was a little bit shaky then about what an audition actually entailed — he remembers telling his mother, “Hey Mom, I’m going to a play,” when he was actually trying out for one.
After the audition, Jonathan faced his mom.
“I was doing my whole ‘droopy face’ thing,” he said.
“I thought he got third tree from the left,” Mary Ann said, realizing that major roles are not often won on a first audition.
But of course the droopy face was just acting. He’d been cast as Wilbur, the lead role in the play.
After that, Jonathan says, there was a long streak of getting in every show he auditioned for.
“I grew up on the Piedmont Players stage,” he said.
At that point, however, Mary Ann hadn’t been involved with PPT, but with Jonathan so involved, she tried out for “My Fair Lady,” and earned her first role with Piedmont Players.
Performance wasn’t foreign to Mary Ann, but most of her experience to that point had been as a singer. At Florida State University, she was a social work major (largely because her parents wouldn’t let her do otherwise) but she minored in music, English literature and theatre.
Her roommate, a music major, encouraged her to try out for a chorus there. Turns out it was the top chorus on campus, directed by Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, who is now an internationally renowned director. That led to her working in the opera, and later with a semi-professional singing group in Jacksonville.
Performing fell by the wayside when Mary Ann became a mother.
When she began acting, it was a natural fit.
Mary Ann still remembers being called a “surprising newcomer” by Post theatre critic Deirdre Parker Smith. After that, she and Jonathan did a number of shows together, including “Evita” and “Camelot.”
During a performance of “My Fair Lady” at Hedrick, on a mother’s day weekend, Mary Ann recalls driving home, listening to a country music station and being moved to tears by a song about mothers and dogs or something equally sweet and sentimental.
She got home — still a little misty, she says — to hear her mother say, “Where’s Jonathan?”
Turns out she’d left her 9-year-old messing around on the stage at the theater.
Reid Leonard remembers it well.
Despite that less-than- stellar moment in parenting, Mary Ann continued winning roles and awards for her performances.
Jonathan is among her many fans.
“She’s the best damn character actress in this area,” he says.
And Jonathan ain’t so bad himself. He’s particularly appreciative of what he learned from his Piedmont Players experiences
“I got a lot of good stuff from Reid,” he says, of PPT director Reid Leonard.
“I’ve had so many good teachers at so many different stages of my life.”
But growing up in Salisbury provided some challenges. Mary Ann acknowledges that Jonathan was “not an obedient child” and that he tended to behave better on stage than off.
“I questioned a lot,” Jonathan says, recalling his noncompliant ways.
At 16, after leaving Salisbury High a bit earlier than planned and moving to Charlotte, he landed a spot in a touring 50s act, playing the greaser half of “Johnny and Tina.” He traveled around the country, including Utah, New York Vermont and Iowa, singing songs like “Dream Lover” and “Splish Splash” at baseball games, private parties and wherever else the act was booked.
The culmination of what he describes as his “tumultuous childhood” was striking out on his own at 16.
After getting an associate’s degree at Pitt Community College, he attended East Carolina University as a business major — largely because that was his girlfriend’s major.
He switched to communications briefly before becoming a theatre major and landing roles at the ECU Children’s Theatre, including “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”
He stayed there for a year and a half and then took his shot at the TV show “American Idol,” winning a golden ticket. He’s not sure, but he thinks it might be the year that Adam Lambert was on the show. In pursuing American Idol, he had to give up his spot in a theatre scholarship program. When Idol didn’t pan out, Jonathan decided the stage was calling — he realized he didn’t really want to go back to school.
“I was hungry to work,” he said.
He did one more show at Piedmont Players and then became an itinerant actor, moving to wherever he could get a part he wanted.
He played the lead in “Marty’s Party” at Carowinds, then moved to Raleigh for a role in NC Theatre’s production of “The Full Monty” with Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame.
After that, he’s continued to move around the state for various roles, including Sanford (“South Pacific”) and Fayetteville (“Hairspray”) and to other states, like Ohio, where he says he “spent the summer in a toolshed on top of a mountain.”
“I’m very driven,” he says. “I’m always looking for the next audition.”
It’s that kind of passion that recently landed him two lead roles in Charlotte shows.
Mary Ann admires her son’s dedication.
“It’s not an easy profession,” she says. “It’s risky, and it requires total devotion. He’s working his butt off to make it work. It’s paying your dues. You’ve got to do it.”
For his part, Jonathan can’t imagine doing anything else and is always seeking out the next role.
“If I’m not on stage, I’m crazy,” he says. “I get restless.”
He credits theatre with turning his life around.
“It’s what I’m going to do until the world ends,” he says.
Coarsey has the lead role in two plays that are now in rehearsal: he plays the title character in a Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of “Lyle the Crocodile.”
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“Lyle the Crocodile, which opened Friday, can be seen at the McColl Family Theatre at ImaginOn, 300 7th St. Front, through April 17.
Orchestra tickets are $24; general section tickets are $18. For tickets, call the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte box office at 704-973-2828 or visit
• • •
Jonathan also has a lead role — Frederick Trumper — in Queen City Theatre’s production of “Chess.”
“Chess: The Musical,” the London version, will be performed at Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. in Charlotte. There wil be 18 performances, from May 19-June 11.
Tickets, which are selling fast, are available at with prices ranging from $16 to $ 28 with a special discounted $14 performance when purchased online through the website.
“Chess” is Queen City Theatre’s largest production to date.
• • •
Mary Ann can be seen in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which opens April 7.
The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m., April 7-9 and 13-16, at the Looking Glass Artist Collective’s Black Box Theatre, 405 N. Lee St.
Admission is $10, students are $5 with student ID. For information, call 704-647-0999 or email