RACINE — All the stage is the world for Racine native Rachel McPhee.
The daughter of legendary Racine Theatre Guild director Norm McPhee, Rachel made her stage debut under her father’s watchful eye at the tender age of 6 in a production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
After graduating from Park High School in 2001, she earned a degree in theater from the University of Wisconsin in 2005 and studied for a year at The Drama Studio in London.
In 2011, Rachel married Robert Benson of England at the Theatre Guild and held her reception on the stage. Family and friends offered tributes, songs and readings dedicated to the couple.
And for the last 10 years, McPhee has been in New York carving out a living as an actress. She has performed in a long list of plays, films, television shows, and has been featured in print advertisements and on Internet shows.
Her career hit a high note recently when The New York Times wrote an extensive article about a one-woman play she currently stars in, running at a small theater in New York City.
The show, written by her husband, is called “Dead Shot Mary” and is based on the true story of New York’s first female detective, Mary Shanley.
“It’s a wonderful feeling and I’m definitely enjoying the moment,” said McPhee in a phone interview from New York. “Everything in this business is fleeting and it all can go away so fast. You have to enjoy the good things when they happen.”
Despite the peaks and valleys of the profession, McPhee never for a moment wanted to do anything else. “I was surprised that everyone else in the world didn’t want to be an actor,” she said. “I was constantly surrounded by it and I loved it.
“I always said this is something I have to do. I have never thought about stopping, no matter how low things got,” she said.
“I encouraged her,” her father said. “I told her it would be tough. But she has always been ambitious. She’s not one to sit back and wait for something to come to her.”
Her current play is a perfect example. McPhee and her husband footed the bill for the 63-minute production, which runs six times a week until Oct. 15 at the Bridge Theater on West 54th Street.
Benson discovered Mary Shanley’s story while browsing online. He immediately recognized the detective would be a perfect role for his wife.
“Rob says he wrote it with me in mind, that he heard my voice,” McPhee said.
Benson told the New York Times that McPhee could portray the grit of “a tough old broad married to the job,” but also go under that veneer and find out who this person was, what was she like at home.
Apparently she inhabited the character a little too well. “When she walked onto the stage, I hardly recognized my own daughter because she had captured Mary Shanley so perfectly,” said McPhee’s mother, Marsha Nelson of Kenosha.
The theater is small — 30 seats — which makes the role even more intimate, McPhee said. “I can see everyone very clearly every night,” she said. “I really feed off the audience. It’s always different. I like to have fun with the audience and be in the moment. That keeps every fresh for me.”
Shanley, nicknamed Dead Shot Mary for her skill at pulling a pistol from her handbag, was credited with more than 1,000 arrests during her 26-year career with the New York Police Department, from 1931 to 1957. She was one of the earliest female first-grade detectives and considered a trailblazer. She died in 1989 at age 93.
“The play raises so many questions about a woman being on the outside, and I think many women still struggle with that, even though we have a woman running for president,” she said. “Those themes are universal and they are at the heart of the show.”
McPhee, who also works as a personal assistant to make ends meet, said the play could move to a bigger venue if it attracts the attention of a producer. Also, she and Benson have proposed a television series be made based on the story.
“I would love to just be able to act and not have to do anything else,” McPhee said. “I think I’m about halfway there. I’m getting closer and closer.”