Linda Purl loves to travel and loves to act. So her current situation--playing Thea in Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and Annie in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" in the Taper's summer repertory program (at the Doolittle through July 13)--couldn't be more opportune.
"I go to Norway two nights a week and then to London for another two," the elegant actress explained with a smile, settling into a couch in her Oriental-themed Coldwater Canyon home.
"It's comfortable, because you sort of get two cracks at each play--then twice a week, three cracks (over the weekend). If it was any more than that, I think you'd be away from the other play too long. But this feels just right."
Although she's been acting since an early age (in Japan, where her father was an executive with Union Carbide and where she was born and grew up), the repertory experience was a new one.
"I actually found there wasn't that much to adjust to--which was surprising," she said. "Mind you, I think it helps that the plays are terribly different, one from the other. One's a period piece, one's modern-day; one's a drama, one's a drama with humor. So keeping them separate was never a problem. From the moment Kate (Mulgrew, who plays Hedda) and I are laced into our corsets, you feel the period, how bound these women were. They couldn't step out of the house alone, their life was nothing without the shelter of a man. So they had to work out their relationships within those parameters.
"Oddly enough," the actress continued, "with those restrictions lifted, as they are in 'The Real Thing' (which centers on the romance and marriage of two upscale Britons, actress Annie and writer Henry), it's just as difficult. The relationships are just as complicated, just as complex."
And Purl's character is no exception: alternately hard, soft, needy, secretive and emotionally distant.
"I never thought it should be hard to sympathize with Annie," she said choosing her words carefully. "I don't think she's a villain. And I didn't think Stoppard would've written a character you weren't supposed to like, because then, as the audience, you could say, 'Well, Annie's just a mean lady and I'd never get hooked up with her--so the play doesn't apply to me,' or ' I would never behave like that so it doesn't apply to me.' "
Purl's own fix on Annie--as "honest, very much in love and terribly frustrated"--was helped greatly by the appearance of Stoppard himself during rehearsals.
"We were all very nervous," she said with obvious awe. "You're used to doing plays by playwrights that've passed away, not living ones. It was fascinating--because Stoppard really is (the character) Henry. And there he was, in living color. So I could ask him, 'What does Annie mean here? What is she actually saying?' Then Tom would give us the same sub-text that Gordon (director Gordon Davidson) had been thinking of."
Another wise choice, she feels, was keeping the play true to its English origins, complete with British accents for the cast.
"To say those lines with an American accent--well, it'd be very flat," she said. "The music is gone, the rhythm is gone, the emphasis is different. And there are a lot of British idioms in it. They use the word 'bloody' a lot. Also, because of the way Stoppard writes, there are bits of information that come out in the middle of sentences. So it's really a play where the audience has to work hard, become an active member."
Clearly, theater is Purl's medium of choice. "It's the thrill of being part of a spontaneous thing that happens between strangers and will never happen again," she said.
But economic necessity--and love of work in general--has kept her seesawing between stage (including "Beyond Therapy" at the L.A. Public and "Romeo and Juliet" at the Skylight) and television work ("Eleanor and Franklin," "Having Babies," "The Last Days of Pompeii" and the recent "Pleasures").
And during her down time?
"If I'm not working and I have the money, I'll try to jump on a plane. World passes are great! I went to Africa with my mother a year and a half ago." Another trip to Europe became a research excursion on the life of Mary Shelley, "and now I'm really interested in doing a project about her--a play, movie, miniseries, anything. There's so much stuff there."
Other closer-to-home pursuits include dancing ("I love ballet but I have a lousy turnout, so it's mostly jazz") and putting together her own nightclub act, which she debuted a few months ago at the Gardenia, and will reprise later this year at the Hollywood Roosevelt.
"The other day, an interviewer asked me what I did for fun," she said. "And I felt like such a jerk trying to explain that this--my work--is my fun."
The attraction manifested itself early on: beginning with childhood appearances with the National Theatre of Japan (Purl is fluent in Japanese) and, later, hosting her own talk show there. In the early '70s, she came to the States.
"At that time, there wasn't this kind (of profusion) of theater here," she explained. "So I was torn between staying in New York--being an actor --and going to L.A. as some sort of thespian trollop."
These days, she's found a way to bridge the gap between the two identities--and also grab herself a bit of job security. Following her 1982-83 stint as a regular on "Happy Days" (as Fonzie's fiancee), Purl will return to weekly television this fall, starring with Andy Griffith in "Matlock" as a father-and-daughter lawyer/crime-solving team.
Unusual casting? No, says Purl.
"Andy really looks like my father."