SAN DIEGO — Adrienne Barbeau remembers an uncle who served "two or three" tours of duty in Vietnam. He had been in the National Guard for six years, then transferred to the Army, for which he served in the infantry. After his last tour, to everyone's surprise, he mysteriously and inexplicably left the Army just four years short of retirement.
Maybe he had seen enough. Maybe he was fed up, disillusioned, felt betrayed. Barbeau doesn't know. She would like to talk about Vietnam with a man who happens to be a favorite relative.
But he hasn't said a word, and won't. Vietnam is a taboo topic.
Barbeau, 41, has thought a lot of that uncle lately, more so since her appearance in "Strange Snow," which has run for almost a month at the La Mirada Civic Theatre. She plays Martha, a repressed schoolmarm and the sister of a Vietnam veteran in the Stephen Metcalfe play that opens Tuesday night at the East County Performing Arts Center. The final performance is the following Sunday.
"My feelings about Vietnam haven't changed, only deepened--but deepened considerably," said Barbeau, who ordinarily is thought of as the daughter in TV's "Maude," or for her parts in such movies as "Swamp Thing," "Creepshow" and "The Fog."
Barbeau has a serious side, one horror movies and comedies may have unintentionally undercut. She takes pains to point out that, except for "Maude" and the play "Women Behind Bars," almost all her roles have been "serious drama."
Still, she laughs at some of the horror flicks, especially considering her 2-year-old son. To watch his mom work, Cody has asked to see some of those.
"He's been exposed to some pretty bizarre films for a child his age," Barbeau said, sounding more serious than she might have intended.
She only recently returned to work after taking time to deliver and then be with Cody in his early years. They live in Los Angeles' exclusive Coldwater Canyon. Cody's father and Barbeau's ex-husband is John Carpenter, director of "The Fog" and the TV movie "High Rise," in which she played a "lesbian victim." She and Carpenter met on the set of "High Rise."
Barbeau once exposed everything in "Oh, Calcutta!" and was later described as "a pinup poster queen whose cleavage once resembled Farrah Fawcett's, a sex symbol."
She seems headed for an image change. "Strange Snow" was one of about 25 scripts she reviewed as the launching pad for a comeback.
"I think it's just wonderful--a touching, moving story," she said. "From the moment I started it, I loved it. I finished it in a parking lot, tears streaming down my face. When I read it, I knew there was humor, but I wasn't aware exactly how much until we started the play. Metcalfe is just brilliant with words. He's very gifted. I hope to meet him some day."
She may get the chance. Metcalfe has been a frequent guest of the Old Globe Theatre, for which he has written several plays, including "Strange Snow," "Vikings," "Emily" and most recently, "The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers." The current version of "Strange Snow" is the fourth to be performed in San Diego County.
James Horan, who plays Barbeau's brother, is a veteran of "General Hospital." Michael Keays Hall plays a Vietnam buddy of Horan's character. They're directed by Glenn Casale, who staged "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Wrestlers" in Los Angeles. Barbeau said Casale has been the best director she has worked with since her performance on Broadway in the original "Grease," for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.
"Grease" is one of the highlights of a career that stretches to 1968 and her debut on Broadway in "Fiddler on the Roof." She had the outrageous fortune of sharing a dressing room with Bette Midler, who remains a close friend.
In remembering the lasting moments, the sweet moments of a career that has been bouncing along almost since her uncle's exodus from Vietnam, Barbeau most treasures her experience in "Grease." That's the kind of memory she would like to deep-fry in for a very long time.
"Most of my closest friends, most of the people I socialize with, are ones I met in 'Grease,' " she said. "The thing I remember most was not the Tony nomination but the friendship, the affection, the love. I know it sounds corny, but it's true."
Barbeau has felt victimized at times for being typecast, however unwittingly, as a comedic actress who also does horror flicks. The image of Barbeau fleeing some ghastly creature, her clothing torn, her breasts exposed, may linger as a metaphor for her career.
Is the creature the fear of being typecast?
"People remember me most from 'Maude,' " she said. "If it's kids, they remember 'Swamp Thing.' It depends on who's doing the remembering; they tend to categorize you by what they remember. You're a comedian, because you did 'Maude,' they say, or you're a horror actress because you did 'The Fog.' "
Victims are those who choose to feel like one, she said. Besides, actors who get typecast are, she said, usually guilty only of being good. She asked: Have you ever known anyone getting typecast by doing a part poorly?
What she wants to remember, she said, is the fun, and the fact that she has worked when others haven't.
Like her uncle, she has been in the trenches, but she's still talking, and most of the time, with a smile.