When Florence Lacey closes out the national tour of "Evita" in September (the musical is at the Long Beach Terrace through May 18), she will have played the role of Eva Peron for five years--which is more than half the time that Juan Peron held presidential office in Argentina.
A performer tied into a major role lives in a double bind. How do you play night after night for years without having a glaze come over the mind's eye? And where do you go when it's all over? The latter poses a particular difficulty inasmuch as the genre of big musicals is drying up, leaving any number of gifted performers sitting by the telephone.
"You worry that you'll be forgotten in a week," Lacey said. "But that isn't really true." She looked pensive for a second, then said, "Actually, you are forgotten in a week. You have to start all over again."
Another twist for the actor's ego has to be the contrast between the adulation accorded success in a big, charismatic role like "Evita" and the stark, empty periods when one has no work (Lacey lived in Hollywood for three years in the mid-'70s and didn't work at all). She's been feted wherever she's played, often with politicians in attendance, as though people are confusing her, on a subliminal level, with a glamorous political superstar ("I keep that in perspective," she said dryly). Yet, when she went home after "Evita's" 1984 tour was cut short, she had only two auditions in six months.
That gives one a lot to think about. Lacey has plenty of star quality of her own. She has the luminous air of equipoise common to the professional beauty, and she's smoothly light-spirited. But between the lines she often alludes to the anxiety of a life in the theater, of trying to live a real life in a milieu that trafficks in illusion.
"I'd like to do something else after this is over," she said at lunch recently. "But 'Evita' has given me a great deal more than professional recognition. For all her flaws, she was a woman of great courage and ideals. In my roles, I look for a common seed. She was illegitimate; I wasn't, but my father died when I was a year old, so I grew up, like her, lacking a certain definition--the feeling of knowing who you are--and wanting to be loved by everyone.
"I was raised as a Catholic. When I told my mother I was going into the theater, I thought she'd die. And even much later, when I was into my career, I had an acting teacher tell me 'You're pretty, but you need life behind you.' I was a simple person, very structured. Playing Evita brought real changes into my life. It forced me to come out of the shadows of myself, to deal with anger and hurt, face up to things I was never willing to face before.
"Evita was tough and cold on the outside. Inside she was ethereal. It took me a year to convince Hal Prince I could play her, and even now I go back to his notes, which emphasize playing up her frailty (he didn't always see her that way). That's what keeps the role fresh--keeping those sides in balance. As for the rest, I know things don't change basically. You always struggle with the highs and lows. I think that the only thing you can realistically hope for yourself is a readiness for whatever happens next. I think Evita has put that life behind me that I needed."
LATE CUES: Barbara Rush has reopened "A Woman of Independent Means" at the L.A. Stage Co. for a six-week run. . . . The South Coast Repertory reports that more than 80 plays have been submitted from across the country in reposnse to its first Hispanic Playwrights Project, which culminates with a week of staged readings and workshops July 9. . . . The cast of "Cats" at the Shubert will join in a presentation on behalf of Pet Orphans on Wednesday at noon at the ABC Entertainment PLaza in Century City. Lee Meriwether will host the event. . . . Peter Parnell, whose "Romance Language" was co-produced by the San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in January, has received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Plans are for Jack O'Brien to direct "Romance Language" at the Old Globe next season.