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CRITIC AT LARGE

Martha Scott Travels From 'Our Town' to Tinseltown

September 21, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" qualifies as one of the most durable, indelible, prototypically American plays of them all. It is a hymn to the universal cycles of birth, love and death as revealed in the life of a small New England town.

Yet Martha Scott, the actress who was the original Emily in "Our Town" in 1938, was remembering at lunch the other day how the play nearly died in rehearsals before the public ever saw it, and how it almost expired again in Boston before it could reach New York.

Scott, who has returned to acting after many adventures as a producer and who will shortly be seen in an ABC movie of the week called "My Daughter of the Streets," playing the mother of her old friend Jane Alexander, had come out of summer stock and a Shakespearean tour. In the winter of 1937-38, she was making the rounds in Manhattan, without success. She was 23.

"Jed Harris was directing and he had fired two Emilys," Scott was saying. "They could do the first two acts but not the third, where Emily has died. Jed called the company together before lunch one day. They were rehearsing in New York and there were just eight days before the first tryout at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He said they were going to close down because he couldn't find an Emily.

"He asked if anybody in the company knew an actress they thought could play Emily. Evelyn Varden and Philip Coolidge had both seen me and they suggested me. Harris said, 'Have her here by 4 o'clock.' "

Ironically, or exasperatingly, Scott had tried to get in to see Harris' casting agent, Jane Broder, about the part, but hadn't been able to get through the door. "I was sharing with two other girls in a tiny room at the Algonquin. When I had a message to call Jane I was still so mad I almost didn't."

She did, of course. Harris read her in his office and said, "My God, this is Emily." He and the stage manager walked her to the Empire Theatre and she was in rehearsal by the end of the afternoon.

The Boston reviews were terrible. The word boring ran through the reviews. But the dean of Boston critics, Eliot Norton, had been out of town the night it opened. He came a couple nights later and, Scott remembers, went backstage still deeply moved and told the company it was the great play of the American stage. He became a loud champion of "Our Town." (Critics do have their uses.)

On opening night at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York, there was a long silence at the final curtain--so long that the company was unsure what to do about curtain calls, or if there should be any. Gradually there began to be muffled applause. "We couldn't imagine why it was such soft applause," Scott says. "Then we saw it was because so many people had their handkerchiefs in their hands."

Harris, not a fast man with a compliment, told Scott, "You did all right, but I still don't know about the play."

Two years later, Scott was nominated for an Oscar as best actress in the film version, playing opposite William Holden in a wonderful cast that also had Frank Craven, from the original cast, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Guy Kibbee and Beulah Bondi. It was nominated as best picture as well.

In 1968 Scott, along with Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan, formed a theatrical production company called the Plumstead Playhouse. It later did Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee's "First Monday in October" at the Kennedy Center with Fonda and Jane Alexander, and then as a film with Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh.

But the premiere production by Plumstead (named for a Philadelphia wharf warehouse that became one of the country's first theaters), was a revival of "Our Town," with Fonda himself as the stage manager. Kitty Wynn, later Al Pacino's co-star in "Panic in Needle Park," was Emily in the first company, followed by the late Elizabeth Hartman. Estelle Parsons was also in the cast, along with Doro Mirande, who had been in the 1938 production.

"Thornton Wilder came to see the production and he told us he liked it," Scott says. "That meant a lot, because he was famous for walking out on productions that he thought were too lugubrious or too full of sentimentality."

Scott lived in the East for years, while her husband, pianist-composer-teacher Mel Powell, was for 15 years on the music faculty at Yale. They returned to Los Angeles when Powell, who at 18 had been the pianist in the Benny Goodman band, joined the faculty at CalArts, where he remains.

Talk about small-town typecasting: Scott was born on a farm outside the town of Jamesport, Mo. (pop. 864). An edge-of-town sign, she says, proclaims that Jamesport is "Famous for Fishing, Farms and the Birthplace of Martha Scott."

Her father later opened a garage in Gallatin, Mo., and then became plant engineer for a paint and varnish firm in Kansas City. All the while, Scott had a hankering to act; her parents disapproved and thought she should be a teacher. A sympathetic aunt loaned her $2,500 (later repaid) so she could enroll at the University of Michigan.

Her parents never saw her act professionally until the owner of the varnish works, well aware of Scott's triumph in "Our Town," gave them train tickets and ordered them to New York to catch the play. They did and were both thrilled and reconciled to her profession.

Actually, Scott says, quoting someone else, "Theater is not a profession, it's a disease." That's the kind of thing actors like to say, as writers like to say about writing. But it's not to be taken seriously. Unlike all other diseases, acting (like writing) is a disease you can't imagine being without. Scott is very happy to be acting again, in our town.

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