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For Linda Hunt, A Pact Fulfilled

May 30, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

LA JOLLA — When Linda Hunt opens as Dolly Levi in "The Matchmaker" at the La Jolla Playhouse Sunday, she will be keeping an old pact with herself.

Dolly was a character who provided tremendous sustenance to Hunt when she needed it most.

"I was 30, in New York for the second time. I had no money, no job," explained Hunt, now 42, on one of those luminous California afternoons that make anguish or despair seem quite impossible.

"The crunch was on and the stakes were higher. It was desperately important that I keep a momentum going that had begun in my work and that threatened always to go out like the tide."

Strange-sounding words to those only familiar with Hunt since she was thrust into orbit as Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously" and won an Oscar for it. But those who knew Hunt when-- as one of thousands trying to make it in theater in Manhattan--might not so readily have singled her out for a brilliant career. No matter how piercing those Wedgwood eyes, how talented the performer, modulated the voice or quick the mind, a tiny, unassuming woman, plain as a tennis shoe, was not an odds-on favorite.

"Dolly," she continued, "is at a similar time in her life. She's an Irish immigrant, has obviously known hard times, married a Viennese Jew, Ephraim Levi, had a wonderful marriage and he's died. She has gone through grief and loss and rediscovered a deep source of personal power. She's determined to make a life for herself again and to do it by reaching out to other people, have an effect on them and a place in their lives.

"I was looking for this in my life--a sense of creative community, an artistic home. Dolly also has a wonderful attitude about money, how powerful it is and how that power can be creative or destructive. It's confusing to be an artist standing in the unemployment line in this country and to ask yourself, 'Am I a bad person because I can't earn any money?' I was liberated by working on this character."

But it took some doing. Hunt had grown up in comfortably middle-class Westport, Conn., with an older sister, a father who commuted to New York, a mother who taught piano. Her interest in theater was ignited early and nurtured by a family that supported without pushing. Her last two years of high school were at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy, from which she segued directly to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to study for two years. It wasn't until 1966, when Hunt had her first tussle with New York that she ran into a brick wall.

"I directed a community theater, I would stage manage for a friend Off-Off Broadway, I would do non-Equity summer stock. Those were the only jobs I could get."

After three discomfiting years, Hunt left New York "in great confusion and consternation" and enrolled in an acting class in Westport with Robert Lewis, a founding member of the Group Theatre.

"It was," she said, "a very important moment for me. Bobby was the right person at the right time, a brilliant teacher. He gave me enormous support. Outside of school, I'd never had a mentor, never been chosen by someone. Bobby said something no one had said to me before: 'There's no problem. You have to do this. You're not going to have any trouble.' A year and a half later, I was working."

Hunt joined the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven where she met Martha Clarke and Austin Pendleton, who were to become important in her life. When the Long Wharf's production of "Ah, Wilderness!" went to New York in 1975, Hunt went with it.

"I had been looking for a way," she said, "a sign, to go back to New York. "But when 'Ah, Wilderness!' closed, it was nine, 10 months before I got another job. I thought, 'Oh, no. This can't happen again. I'm not going to have a repeat performance of the first three years in New York!' So I went back to class. At bad moments, a great class has always saved my skin.

"That's when I studied with Austin (Pendleton), worked on the speech from 'Matchmaker' and met Dolly for the first time."

Mercifully, there was no repetition of the first New York experience. Earlier contacts, such as that with Lyn Austin of the Music Theatre Group, began to pay off.

"Martha Clarke, who had become a close friend, had started to work with Lyn. Lyn actually put together the ideas for the first play ever written for me," she said.

It was "The Tennis Game" by George W. S. Trow. The association with Trow continued for four years embracing two more plays: "Prairie Avenue" and "Elizabeth Dead," a one-woman piece directed by Clarke. Hunt's uniqueness was beginning to work to her advantage.

Hunt and Clarke teamed up once more to turn Kafka's "Metamorphosis" into something called "A Metamorphosis in Miniature," precursor of Clarke's recent "The Hunger Artist." It was during the run of this show that "The Year of Living Dangerously" came along, "out of the blue," with all the warning and formality of a tornado.

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