Unwinding in Chilmark

For actress Amy Brenneman and her family, their simple Vineyard home is a gateway to a relaxed lifestyle that’s a welcome contrast to Hollywood.

“It wasn’t really on my radar,” television and screen star Amy Brenneman says about the Vineyard. She was sitting in the living room of the Island home she and her husband, writer and director Brad Silberling, have owned for eight years. The five-time Emmy Award winner, who created, produced, and starred in Judging Amy for six seasons, grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut, with a father and mother (a lawyer and a judge, respectively) who took her and her two brothers camping in places like Camden and Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

But Brad told her he wanted to visit the setting for Jaws, the Steven Spielberg classic that had mesmerized him as a teenager growing up in Los Angeles. They first visited in 1993, and rented for a number of years after that. Now the couple and their two children make Chilmark their home for as much of the summer as they can manage, spending New Year’s there as well. This New Year’s, Amy’s brother and his family joined them from Marblehead.

Amy was five months pregnant with their daughter, Charlotte – now seven – and shooting episodes of Judging Amy, when Brad picked out their Vineyard house. Too busy to participate in house hunting, she did have a few stipulations.

“I just couldn’t have it be any work,” Amy says, “no fixer-uppers, no huge gardens. So I walked in for the first time in December of 2000, hugely pregnant.”

The Brenneman-Silberling family residence might not be what you’d expect for two such highly visible Hollywood celebrities. Amy’s latest movie, 88 Minutes, with Al Pacino, hit movie theaters in April. She also plays psychiatrist Violet Turner in Private Practice, the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff on ABC. Her husband is directing a new Will Ferrell movie, Land of the Lost, due out in summer 2009. (Amy calls the movie a blast and expects to find it playing at the Capawock.)

The Brenneman-Silberling Vineyard hideaway is a nothing-fancy, four-bedroom, ranch-style cottage with adjoining studio. A Subaru wagon is parked next to the kitchen door, and children’s toys dominate the backyard rather than big-time landscaping schemes. Forget elaborate floral plantings. Veggies rule in this garden. No dramatic views of the ocean – just a peaceful, woodsy perch with a deck overlooking Chilmark’s treetops. Then again, Amy herself is as natural and unaffected as her character Amy Gray was in Judging Amy. She projects a combination of down-to-earth personal strength and genuine warmth.

“I’m really a small-is-beautiful, less-is-better person,” Amy explains in regard to her home. She’s just now considering that the family might eventually need a bigger Vineyard house as the children grow. For the time being, their nanny stays in the studio, Charlotte has her own room, and three-year-old Bodhi uses the master bedroom, where there’s plenty of room for his toys. The living room, dining room, and kitchen make up one large, open space with a floor-to-ceiling slate fireplace, comfortable furniture, an electric keyboard in one corner, and large children’s toys like a rocking horse and a play tree. The ancient kitchen, which, according to Amy, “fell apart” last Christmas, is getting a makeover this year.

“I love Chilmark,” Amy says. “I get very affected by the light and just the beauty of the Island on a cellular level.” As a comparative religions major at Harvard, Amy studied sacred dance in Nepal and shamanism. “A lot of us got into India and Zen Buddhism then,” she says.

Her spirituality no doubt comes in part from her Midwestern-raised parents – an “Anglo-Waspy” father, Russell, a Jewish mother, Frederica – neither of whom grew up with religion but were baptized as Congregationalists at age thirty. Growing up, Amy and her brothers Matthew, a lawyer, and Andrew, a web designer, belonged to a Congregational church where the idea of a life of service was important. Amy was encouraged to be curious about spiritual dimensions to the world. Now she’s attending an Episcopal church in Los Angeles.

“We never know when our breaks will be,” Amy says about her Vineyard stays. “It’s very much about us,” she explains. “It’s pretty private.” Production schedules dictate when the family can come. This year, shooting for the second season of Practice was pushed forward because of the Writers Guild of America strike and is keeping the family’s Vineyard time to a minimum. “For the first three or four years, we’d go in May or June,” says Amy. “So the Island for us was a quiet experience, and we prided ourselves on always going off-season. When we started coming in July and August, I could see how social life was; there are friends we only see there – some of whom actually live in L.A. – and Charlotte started getting into a rhythm at the Chilmark Community Center. I didn’t know that whole scene even existed. While I still love coming in the off-season, I look forward to our summer social life more and more.”

Recently the Brenneman-Silberling clan has expanded its Vineyard presence. Amy’s mother-in-law, Joyce Silberling, who found the couple a rental on Tisbury Great Pond before they bought, built a house in West Tisbury with her husband, Bob, and spends two months there in the summer. The Brenneman side of the family gathered on-Island at the former James Cagney estate on the North Shore in 2006 to celebrate Amy’s mother’s eightieth birthday. Frederica, who was in the first class of women admitted to Harvard Law School and as a superior court judge became the model for Amy’s character on Judging Amy, still sits on the bench as a judge referee.

“I was the daughter of a trail-maker,” Amy says. “I ripped her off. Nobody had done a show like that before. You need an ‘in,’ and that I knew I could provide.” The series, which premiered in 1999, was the runaway hit of the season.

“I’m basically untrained,” Amy says of her acting skills, describing herself as an okay singer and a better dancer. While a teenager, she acted in Creative Experiences, a Glastonbury, Connecticut, program run by Chris Gullotta, a mentor Amy is still close to. At Harvard, Amy helped found Bill Rauch’s Cornerstone Theater Company, then traveled with the multi-ethnic ensemble for five years. She describes that experience, where the actors worked within a community, as slightly Messianic and a little like building a church. She moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and found being in front of a camera, cut off from the audience, jarring at first.

“As people come up to you on the street because they recognize you, you appreciate the time dimension, then the broader impact,” she says of the difference between performing live and for TV and screen.

Theater, on the other hand, Amy finds very physical. For the first time in years, she will miss her annual stint at the Vineyard Playhouse. One of the Playhouse’s artistic associates, Joann Green Breuer, is her former college professor and cast her in the popular new-work showcase Monday Night Specials for several years. Last summer, Amy and Irish actor Peter O’Meara – he played 1st Lt. Norman Dike in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers – did a staged reading of three short Arabic plays directed by Joann. Amy also joined friends Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub – she met the Monk star at nineteen when she played a spear holder in a Harvard production – and a host of other well-known actors to read the late Spalding Gray’s Stories Left to Tell at a fundraising event for The Yard, which she’s been involved with since her first visit here.

“I can see myself doing a small company and more theatery stuff,” Amy predicts. “My view of creativity is that it’s a flow of activity – not shutting yourself down, not saying no to yourself.”

Every year on the Island differs for the Brenneman-Silberling family, because the children are at different stages. When Bodhi was a baby, Charlotte, whom Amy describes as very strong-willed and passionate, would have no part of the Chilmark Community Center. Now that she’s in school and has become more interested in socializing, she loves it, as well as her teenaged counselors there.

“We get in this nice rhythm, where we go to the beach in the afternoon,” Amy says. “Charlotte and I are intrepid beachgoers.” Bodhi is a champion napper, so the rest of Amy’s afternoon is often spent in quiet time or reading – last summer it was James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. Later in the day there may be excursions to places like Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs or the annual Tisbury Street Fair. Amy has also taken the children to activities at the FARM Institute in Edgartown.

At the end of the day, she and Brad may fall into bed or have dinner with friends like directors Claudia Weill and her entertainment-lawyer husband Walter Teller, and Stephen Gyllenhaal and his screenwriter wife Naomi Foner, or husband-wife actors Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub, but they don’t spend a lot of time at the Island’s restaurants. “We’re not big foodies,” Amy says.

With a father whose law practice focused on environmental issues and who remains active in environmental causes, Amy appreciates the forethought of the Vineyard’s conservation organizations in protecting so much of the Island. She calls it “unrivalled.” Some of the Island’s most beautiful wildlife sanctuaries are close by her Vineyard home, and taking walks there with her children is a favorite activity. Charlotte, who wakes up very early, may pull her brother, whom she adores but is very hard on, down to South Road in a wagon. Then Charlotte will spend several hours at the Chilmark Community Center, while her mom takes a dance class at The Yard. Last season, thanks to The Yard, Amy became obsessed by West African dance. During her month-long first visit to the Island, she assisted choreographer Sabrina Peck at The Yard. Then in 1995 she and Brad spent the summer here while Amy taught seventh graders as part of a Yard artists-in-residence grant.

Because Amy and Brad started coming in the quieter off-season with their growing family, what Amy especially likes is exploring the natural world of the Island. “Walking in the woods is not structured,” she says. “The whole point is to mess around. It’s the unplugging of things.” As they ease themselves into the Island’s summer culture, Amy sees that it can get pretty manic. “It’s cool,” she says, though. “The spirit of this place is so strong it feels more relaxed.” u

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