More than four decades have passed since actor Kristine Nielsen first plotted and schemed across her high school stage as The Matchmaker’s namesake character Dolly Gallagher Levi. Now, having built a professional career filled with accolades (including Tony and Drama League Award nominations and an Obie Award), Nielsen will once again don Dolly’s signature feathered headdress when she headlines this spring’s Goodman Theatre revival of Thornton Wilder’s classic comedy.

“I hope I remember the lines and nothing else of my high school performance,” Nielsen said shortly before beginning rehearsals for the production. “I’ll obviously be completely different. Wilder wrote so many wonderful things about life and how our wants, needs and desires collide in such different ways during its various stages. Now that I’m actually age appropriate for the role, I know this is going to be such a rich experience.”

After attending Northwestern University (The Matchmaker will mark her first time on a Chicago stage since college) and graduate school at Yale University, Nielsen became a distinct comic force in the New York theater scene, where she has notably often starred in the plays of her Yale pal, playwright Christopher Durang. His offbeat works have found Nielsen frantically delivering a one-woman reenactment of a Court TV trial (Betty Summer’s Vacation); reincarnated as a crying baby, an exuberant dog and angst-ridden teenager (Miss Witherspoon) and showcasing a dead-on Maggie Smith impression (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, for which she earned her Tony nomination). Nielsen’s performances often convey a “hectic energy and a thermometer-cracking warmth that enlivens melancholy characters and embraces outlandish ones,” as one of her many glowing New York Times reviews characterized her work.

Her knack for abrasive yet well-meaning characters will surely come in handy when she portrays Dolly, a widowed, over-the-hill matchmaker looking out not only for the young lovers of turn-of-the-century New York, but also her own romantic interests. “She’s a woman who wants the world to be happy and optimistic,” Nielsen said of the character, which has attracted the likes of Ruth Gordon, Shirley Booth, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand and many other iconic actresses in various stage and screen incarnations. “Of course she does it in her own way. It’s her way or the highway and she can be a little tone deaf to what other people say sometimes.”

David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Growing up in Washington, DC, where her mother worked for Hamilton Jordan, Chief of Staff to President Carter, Nielsen found many of her earliest romantic endeavors as the result of her mother’s own matchmaking. “It was a totally different time,” she recalled.I used to pick her up from the White House in a little Volkswagen and they’d wave me in. I’d just wander the halls until I found my mother. Now, you can’t get near the White House! But my mother was convinced that I would marry a senator or a congressman and was always trying to set me up with aides she thought would have a big future in politics. It was always a disaster.” Eventually, she found love in closer professional proximity, marrying actor Brett Langdon, whom she met while working on a production of Theresa Rebeck’s and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ Omnium Gatherum in Louisville. “We got together very quickly and it was sort of magic,” she said of their courtship. “When you realize something special is about to happen, it’s very exciting but then very scary and then very wonderful again.”

“Dolly is tired of negativity, which seems so right during our current time.”

Despite having found her own love, Nielsen isn’t quite sure she has the matchmaking skills of her onstage counterpart. “I’m not very good at it,” she admitted. “I don’t let the mysteries of romance unfold. I try to shove people at each other, although that is a quality that Dolly certainly has as well. I’m pretty naked in my desire to get people together and that’s sometimes off-putting.”

If Nielsen doesn’t bring people together romantically off stage, she certainly hopes to bond theatergoers through her work. “Dolly is tired of negativity, which seems so right during our current time,” she said. “This is the first time in many years that I’ve felt the country was sort of dark; people are anxious and scared of many things happening right now. Dolly’s message is, ‘What you send out, you’ll get back. So why not send out lots of love and try to take care of each other?’ I’m hoping that notion will resonate with and entertain audiences. Keeping love at our cores is essential.