NEW YORK — Geraldine Page dominated the Broadway stage once more on Wednesday, as a standing-room-only audience of family and friends, co-workers and fans filled the Neil Simon Theater to bid farewell to the actress, who died last Saturday at 62.
Actor Rip Torn, Page's husband of 30 years, stepped center stage at the start of the two-hour memorial service and gazed at the several thousand people who filled the theater's seats and aisles. "Yeah, Gerry would like this," he said. In response, the audience rose to its feet, and broke into sustained applause and a chorus of "brava, brava," as though Page were still present to take a bow.
"Her death, like those of Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson--fellow genius/eccentrics--will leave a gaping hole in the ancient tapestry of great acting," said Richard Chamberlain, one of the stars of the current Broadway revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," at the Neil Simon, in which Page was appearing at the time of her death. "Clearly, there will never be anyone like her . . . bon voyage, Geraldine."
With floral arrangements strewn around a living room set for "Blithe Spirit," Torn served as host, introducing speakers and frequently adjusting their microphones. The actor, like the Torns' three children--Anthony, Jonathan, and Angelica Torn-Burkhardt--seemed deeply moved by the speakers who sat with them on stage. But they also joined in the laughter that resulted from the many spirited anecdotes about Page. "I can hear Gerry saying, 'lighten up,' " said Torn.
The actress had been in "fragile health" for the last year, Torn revealed, yet "she chose to spend her last year doing what she wanted--working." And it was Page's commitment to her work, and the enormous influence of her work that dominated the remarks.
Calling Page "the greatest actress we've had in the American theater," actress Ann Jackson related her to "a scientist" in the way she approached her acting. "And yet she's always seemed a mystery . . . she was like an ethereal flame," added Jackson, who was followed by actors James Earl Jones, Amanda Plummer, F. Murray Abraham, Sissy Spacek--Torn's cousin--among others.
"For years, I was haunted with the question, 'How did she do that . . . how did she hold me and move me so, and, how can I do that?' " said Cicely Tyson, who recalled seeing a production of "The Cherry Orchard" featuring Page. "The answer is, she went to the marrow of the bone and found the essence."
Page's work in films also was noted, usually with reference to the Academy Award she won--after seven nominations--for her 1985 performance in "The Trip to Bountiful." But it was her work in the theater and her personal qualities that dominated the eulogies.
"My mother was my best friend," said one of Page's twin sons, Anthony. "She also was my teacher, in every sense of the word." He told of being with his mother on the last day of her life, last Friday; attending one of the acting classes she recently started teaching--at $5 for three hours--and "having the usual burger with the class," before accompanying her to the evening performance of "Blithe Spirit" which was to be her last. "It was muggy and rainy, and I commented on what an awful day it was, and she said, 'Oh, no . . . it's so atmospheric.' "
The service ended with what Torn described as one of Page's favorite pieces of music, Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess," and with these words from Torn: "We never stopped being lovers, and we never will, and I think we all are feeling this way about Gerry: she's here with us, and with everyone she ever touched."