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Fresh Lessons : Actress: Maria Tucci relishes the chance to again portray Gladys, a bitter woman teetering on the edge of madness.

August 23, 1991|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Actress Maria Tucci played Shakespeare's Juliet when she was 20 and then again when she was 30. Her "geriatric Juliet" was, she says, "so much younger."

"When I was 20," she explains, "I was so self-involved and so careful. Ten years later, it was much

easier, lighter. You don't have to worry. You know all the emotions are there." Now, 11 years after playing the role of Gladys Bezuidenhout in the original New York production of Athol Fugard's "Lesson from Aloes," Tucci, 50, is back in the part of this embittered woman skirting the edge of madness.

The distinguished New York actress says that what appealed to her was the opportunity to act opposite the playwright, who is taking on the role of Piet, Gladys' husband. But she also couldn't resist again plumbing the psychological complexities in Fugard's character study.

"We're starting from scratch, looking at it afresh," Tucci said during a rehearsal break, recouping a personal ebullience that appears to be light years away from the sullen Gladys.

"Of course, I can't avoid memories, and it would be wrong to say, 'Well, I'm not going to do it that way.' Little things do creep in, but I know it will be a different performance because I'm a different person, but exactly how it will vary I won't know until we close."

At the time of the original production, Tucci and her husband, Robert Gottlieb (then head of Knopf Inc. and now editor of New Yorker Magazine), were in the midst of a family crisis that helped the actress focus on Gladys' despair. Their second child, Nicky, then 2 years old, was found to have a rare neurological disorder that threatened to drastically impair his mental and physical abilities.

"I could never play Gladys without having gone through what seemed at the time like this rather long dark tunnel," says Tucci. "But there was light and there continues to be light. Nicky's progressed extraordinarily, and there's a lot to grateful for. Everybody has moments of extreme crisis, and you hope by using your own in plays, you can help illuminate those of others. Otherwise, what's the point of doing the theater?"

Nicky, now 13, speaks fluent French and Italian and is, in the words of his proud mother, "a genius," though he still suffers from the effects of his illness. His "miraculous" rehabilitation has affected how Tucci perceives Fugard's bleak social parable. She can even imagine a hopeful coda to Gladys' inevitable return to the psychiatric hospital.

"It's not a laugh riot," said the actress of the play. "Gladys has lost optimism on a grand scale, but I really feel there's a shred of a chance for her because she recognizes the need to go back. I used to think of it as the absolute end, but now I think that it may be a door to something better, to something transcendentally wonderful."

Labeling herself a "revolting optimist," Tucci says that her cheerfulness is a part of her armor, a way to deal with the "terror" of living. Her father, a writer, was of half-Russian, half-Italian descent, and her mother was an Italian countess. "The mix made for tension," she said. "I was dumb, I was ugly, and so the attention was focused on my brother. But I felt I could act, so I sought to carve out this niche for myself while no one was looking."

Coming from "cuckooland," as she puts it, Tucci discovered in Bob Gottlieb an "anchor of sanity," which sounds, for those who know the flamboyant editor, a bit like putting the inmates in charge of the asylum. "Bob describes himself as an Ibsen character who wandered into a Chekhov play," said the actress, who adds that her husband gives her enough rope and, at the same time, enough discipline.

"I like 'tough,' " she says. "No one had ever disciplined me before, and then along came this man who not only did that but also insisted on the truth. We never told the truth in my family. It was considered much too vulgar."

Tucci also praises her husband's clarity, which, she says, makes him a good editor, despite his "enormous ego."

"He doesn't interfere with writers. He's focused on clarifying the work, and that's what a good director does, too," she said. "Athol does it; Mike Nichols, at his best, does it, and Dan Sullivan does, too," she said, referring to the man who recently directed her in "Substance of Fire," the off-Broadway hit.

Ironically, clarity is also the essence of playing a madwoman like Gladys, according to Tucci. "You have to find where her logic is," she says. "Bob and I have a few friends who are quite mad, and they have moments of great sanity. That's what's so terrifying about madness. It sucks you right in by its very rationality. The mad ones are often more lucid than all our fuzzy-minded friends put together."

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