NEW YORK — From the mostly female audience filling the house at the Public Theater here, it was a line that drew quick laughter. For as Anne Jackson so calmly pointed out, reading the part of Estelle in France Burke's new play, "The New World Monkey": "There are some roles that women do not need help with."
On the other hand, one role with which women often do need help is simply finding a role. "It's been bothering me and bothering me," said playwright Elsa Rael, organizer of this first (she hopes) annual P.O.W. Theater Festival, "especially since the actresses that are supposed to be the most sought-after, the big names that you constantly see--they aren't working.
"I just kept thinking, 'Why aren't these people working all the time?' Why, it's absolutely dreadful."
P.O.W., in this case, stands not for Prisoner of War, although many older women in the theater might just as soon dub themselves Prisoners of Reality. Professional Older Women is the mantle under which Rael assembled this first three-week celebration of women over 50 in the world of theater.
Even in this era of Gray Power and nominal anti-ageism, something happens to women in the theater as they slip past 40 and slide toward 65, Rael insists: "They are absolutely the most underemployed group in the theater."
To Rael, the ironies were inescapable. Men get distinguished, as the old chestnut holds, and women get old. Much older women, those Jessica Tandys, Ruth Gordons, Helen Hayeses, Katharine Hepburns and a handful of elegant others, may even find themselves in demand, but for at least those two touchy decades of 40 to 60, many once-working actresses may find themselves precisely that: once-working actresses.
"'And there is another psychological aspect to the problem," Rael said. "And that's the thing about 'Oh, she's 60, but she looks 45.' Why can't you be 60 and look 60? Why can't you have the potbelly and the behind and the sagging breasts?"
Rael's voice all but thundered as she supplied the answer: "Because we are such a crazy, youth-oriented culture."
Not that youth is necessarily the golden panacea. "You can't even afford to be 30 any more," Rael said. "It's utterly ridiculous. Even the 30-year-olds say they're 22."
As for the classics, "Lady Macbeth," said Rael, "was all of about 31."
So when Rael, 56 and a successful writer of plays for children, nabbed first prize in the Atlanta Theater Children's Program last summer, she combined her winnings with a New York State playwrighting grant and set out to organize a contest to create roles for women over 50. The eight-month competition attracted 214 submissions, all written around Rael's single guideline of requiring as a central character, a woman 50 years or older. Men shipped in their entries, so did women in their '20s and, certainly, women of what is politely known as "a certain age." Summarily Rael jettisoned what she called the "caricature roles"--the nursing-home revolutionaries and, in droves, the shopping-bag ladies.
What triumphed were such characters as France Burke's Estelle, a middle-aged woman whose complexities and whose deep secrets unfold in two tight, engaging acts.
"If we're not mistaken," Anne Jackson said afterward, "we're living in a culture where the young are the conquerors of the earth. America has always paid homage to the young. In Hollywood today, aren't most of the films being done by the young, for the young?"
Still, an inquiry about Jackson's own chronological status generated a minor eruption. "Don't you know," she exploded, "you must never ask an actress her age!"
Playing opposite her mother in this courtesy performance, 27-year-old Roberta Wallach suggested that her own age group may effect some change. "I think that what is happening," Wallach said, "is that there is an awareness that there haven't been enough women writers around."
Now, she said, "Women are infiltrating more and more. It is slow, but it's happening." And in the future, Wallach added dryly, "Hopefully this vogue of being absolutely obsessed with teen-agers will die out."
Estelle Parsons, who addressed the opening session of the festival, "got up on stage and did a very brave thing," said Rael. "She said: 'I am 57 years old!' "
Later, when Parsons was between acts of Dario Fo's "Medea," she practically jumped up and down backstage. "They're laughing! They're laughing!" she exulted, pleased that this audience would understand the rage of a woman discarded.
As for Rael, her own optimism was cautious at best. Looking ahead, "There has got to be light. That's the only way you can see it."