The second time around might just be lovelier for Gretchen Corbett. Seven years ago, the actress played Jill in the Back Alley's production of D. H. Lawrence's "The Fox." On Thursday, Corbett repeats her role at the Van Nuys theater.
"This is a great role," Corbett said with emphasis. "You don't expect them to come around very often, and you don't know if what you did will ever work again. When this closed before, I definitely felt finished with it. It's a heavy piece, a heavy role--and you can't help but carry some of the chaff home with you. It's like when you've had a terrible fight with a friend and you're sobbing. Two hours later it's over, but you still feel the effects."
She's less worried about the psychological wear and tear this time: "I'm in better physical shape. Also I'm older; I've learned more about life. And I'm not so involved in the little stuff. I learned you can do your little work--but you can also stand back, see the whole picture: What story you want to tell in terms of your own character. The last time around, I did what I was asked, as best I could. But I wasn't free. I was tighter, restricted--trying to do what was right, rather than trusting my instincts. This time, the work is much richer, deeper."
The actress said she also has a deeper read on the piece itself. In the story, set on an English farm in 1890, Jill finds her cocooned life with roommate/work mate Nellie shattered by the arrival of a young man, the archetypal "fox" in their henhouse.
Corbett's original co-star, Michael Horton, also does a reprise as the intruder, Henry, and Linda Carlson has replaced Jenny O'Hara as Nellie. Allan Miller, who adapted and staged the piece in 1981, is again directing.
"Jill starts out very much of this Earth, of this time," Corbett said. "She lives in the present, doesn't have many dreams. She's in the country to make a life with her partner, her friend.
"And they are friends; there's nothing more explicit than that. Sure, you can read more into it if you like. They're certainly committed to each other. I think women's friendships with each other were deeper then--because they didn't have friendships with men. You see pictures of these women holding hands, with their arms around each other."
Yet platonic affection was not what Lawrence was writing about.
"No indeed," Corbett smiled. "The passion between these two women is strong and real and means more than anything in the world to them. But because I'm not gay, I don't respond that way to a woman. So it's easier for me to play a love and commitment to somebody.
"Like the feeling I have towards my sister: I would put myself on the line for her. Also, I think that doing the play this time, the stakes are higher. We've stepped back and are looking at the larger issues. Rather than looking at sex, we're looking at passion , jealousy, possession--big themes."
Part of the ability to go for those big themes lies in having had the groundwork already assembled.
"Of course," Corbett nodded, "there's a lot of stuff that's already done, a lot that's familiar. But when I first started rehearsal, I found myself falling into old habits--and I had to throw a grenade into them. They were old habits, not choices . As for the energy, well, you really do have to go for it every time. It's a play you cannot not do. It's like you're catapulted into it."
It's obvious that the actress prefers this kind of involvement to the less personal requirements of television.
"Theater is my heart, my nourishment," she said. "I don't go home from shooting an episodic television show feeling great. When I'm doing TV work, it's not for me. I've made no artistic or creative choices whatsoever. You simply do the best you can.
"You have one rehearsal, you learn it at home, you're lucky if you get a run-through on the set. Then you shoot it. You're a technician: learning the lines, getting your job done. But you certainly don't feel like you're touching someone--which is why I became an actress."
Corbett as a 17-year-old was "fiercely independent," she says, leaving home for New Orleans and making her professional stage debut there in "Romeo and Juliet" before an 11-year stint in New York. In the mid-'70s, the actress was offered a contract at Universal "and what seemed at the time an enormous amount of money." She headed West, quickly becoming a fixture on episodic TV--most often playing doctors or lawyers in shows such as "The Rockford Files."
Last year, Corbett opted out of the commercial arena, moving to Seattle with her daughter, Winslow, now 8, "and everything I own, including a gas stove that went into an electric house." At Seattle Repertory, she starred in Janusz Glowacki's "Hunting Cockroaches" and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles." But the theatrical community was limited--and the "white bread" environs made her antsy. Two months ago, Corbett returned to Los Angeles and threw herself into "The Fox."
"A lot of times people do plays to get a job," she said. "But I really like doing plays for theater's sake--plays that are real, whole. There's no motive beyond that."