When she first won her role in John Guare's "Bosoms and Neglect" (at the Odyssey through March 9), Frances Bay wasn't sure she would be convincing as the bitter, tough-talking Henny.
"I couldn't speak to anyone the way she does," the actress said shyly. "And yet, driving in my car and somebody cutting in front of me or traffic being a problem, I can swear like a fishwife. Me--nice Franny Bay! Of course, no one's hearing it. . . . And with my husband: After 39 years we're still in love, but we've had moments when we've been cruel with each other. I remember that--and I use it."
She described her character (as the cancer-ridden mother of Sam Anderson) as "too tenacious to let it (the illness) get her down. She's hiding it from her son--and trying to hold him with it, too. At the end, you find out just how much she's been holding onto him: sometimes aggressively, meanly. All of the characters are searching for something to fill their needs, so obsessed that they become violent."
The process of tapping into those darker feelings has become a welcome challenge for Bay, who credits "Bosoms" director Ron Sossi with keeping her at high pitch.
"He wants more all the time," she nodded. "Whatever I thought was big and strong, Ron said was still 'too sweet, too gentle: Give it more .' Even on opening night, as I was getting ready to go on, he was whispering in my ear, 'Be tough, tougher than you think you are.' "
Tough does not come easily to Bay, a native of Manitoba, Canada, who began her career playing princesses on radio shows. She graduated to "local celebrity status" in Winnipeg, before venturing to Toronto and "realizing that, as I progressed into larger cities, there were a lot of small-town big shots."
Bay remained undeterred.
"I always wanted to be an actress," she said firmly. "And it wasn't ego. I felt so little about myself, considered myself such a sparrow. Not just my size: I thought I was so plain. . . . I did plays not to show off but because if I did that--I didn't realize it at the time--I would be somebody other than this person I didn't really approve of. I guess that's true of a lot of actors."
In spite of a growing attachment to her work, Bay's career took a back seat upon her marriage to childhood sweetheart Charles Bay ("an intellectual, a gentleman ").
"We were both products of the Victorian society," she emphasized. " 'Six o'clock: Dinner should be on the table.' Even though when we decided to get married I'd said, 'You know what I am, what I want to do'--when it got down to reality, it was very difficult to pursue the acting at a businesslike level.
"Some women could say, 'You get the dinner. I'm going off.' But I didn't. I was a wife and mother first--and I submerged the other."
For the next 25 years, she followed her businessman husband around the country. It was not until the '70s, during a stay in Manhattan, that Bay resumed her acting studies (with Uta Hagen) and, with a later move to Boston, began seeking out work in dinner theater, summer stock and radio.
And she realized how much she'd missed it: "I remember going to a party at that time, not knowing everyone there, and nobody talked to me like I was an actress. I remember thinking, 'They don't know .' Deep down inside I wanted that separate identity very much."
In 1973, she returned to New York and began pursuing the work in earnest: "I don't know if it was Women's Lib or something that kind of turned inside of me, but I just started doing it: got new pictures, started pounding the pavement, went to agents--and I got work."
Her husband's reaction? "I think he was at a place in his life (to be able to handle it). And also, I wasn't such a ninny about it this time, such a wimp. I just said, but not belligerently, 'I'm doing it.' "
With the couple's migration to Los Angeles in 1975, Bay's career surged into high gear. In addition to successful theatrical outings in "Uncommon Women and Others" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner," she's often appeared on television: as Fonzie's grandmother on "Happy Days" ("Kids still come up to me about that one"), as "the last honest citizen in New York" on a recent "Cagney & Lacey," Mrs. Santa Claus in an episode of "Amazing Stories" and a cherished stint as a robbery victim on a coming "Hill St. Blues" episode.
"They are a lot of credits," she agreed proudly. "Of course, a lot of that is being old, too. . . ."