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INTERVIEW : She's No Mere Sister Act : Laurie Metcalf is known to TV fans as sibling to the turbulent star. Now she's traveling about 3,000 miles away from Roseanne. But it's not what you think. (Really.)

April 23, 1995|Lawrence Christon | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer. and

A lot of factors have accounted for the success of the 7-year-old "Roseanne" show, begin ning with the mercurial--to say the least-- star herself.

The comedy series was the first of its era to show a representative class of working stiffs left out of the golden glow of "Morning in America"--as if the decade had finally wised up to the Huxtables' semiprecious role modeling. And the show has evolved. Its intuition tells us that if the principal blue-collar strains of the late 1980s were economic, those pressures have imploded into '90s family life.

Too, the show's producers had the good sense to surround Roseanne, an acting amateur, with solid pros, particularly John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf. Goodman's gregarious face and hefty frame have become a familiar sight on TV and the big screen. And serious "Roseanne" watchers have a particular regard for Metcalf's Jackie, who can never seem to get herself out of harm's way.

"I like to play a wide range of characters," Metcalf says. "The more they're unlike me, the better I like it. But Jackie is so close to my own personality that I still feel self-conscious playing her. She's someone I haven't solved."

Fans, especially women, recognize in Jackie a quick intelligence and an appealing, voluble alertness, an optimistic view held firmly in the wrong direction and a woman who is author of her own disappointment. The first to show up at the door to help out in a crisis (when she isn't announcing one of her own), she enters to make things worse, to inject her own complexes into complex matters. You have to love her spunk.

More professional observers see in Metcalf a superb actress at work. From a hairstyle that looks as if it were cut in a fan blade to a body that appears stressed even in wiry repose, Metcalf's presence alone conveys Jackie's imbalances. Beyond that, she has clear-water emotional transparency. Every conflicting emotion is visible in her face, and she has a capacity, rare among actors, for active listening.

"I've learned so much from her," says Roseanne. "She's from a theatrical tradition. I'm from stand-up. It's a different approach. She was very helpful to me in the beginning. She works in her own way, but it pulls everyone together. She's just awesome."

"My first impression of her was 'My God, this woman will do anything,' " says John Goodman. "Her strength stems from her commitment to a role. She's my rock. I have an amazing capacity for self-pity, but when I get that way I just look at her and see how she slides through effortlessly. The choices she makes are astoundingly brilliant. She won't go for the safe or the tried-and-true."

Such honeyed tribute is the norm among show-biz ensembles, which tend to be self-protective. But from "Roseanne's" tempestuous beginning, with its steady report of hateful hates and conversations with flying plates, you can detect a note of genuine appreciation from veterans of the carnage who would look back wearily and say, "Well, there's always Laurie." As though, by standing above it all with statuesque inscrutability, she offered comfort.

Metcalf is off to New York during hiatus to play a wife betrayed in Alexandra Gersten's "My Thing of Love," opening May 3 at the Martin Beck Theatre. And, in a rare gesture of solidarity and affection, some "Roseanne" cast members have taped a number of commercial TV spots, now airing in New York, to help get the word out: From the "Roseanne" set Goodman offers her avuncular notes on how to conduct herself as a star. Estelle Parsons, who remains in character as Jackie and Roseanne's mother, begs for tickets to any Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And Roseanne wonders aloud just how long Jackie's "love thing" really is.

The spots are funny. The play--which deals with the love triangle of a husband (Tom Irwin), his wife (Metcalf) and his mistress (Sheila Kelley)--is not. But it brings Metcalf back not only to a role she created in 1992 in Chicago but also to the thing she may do best--theater. She's a three-time Emmy Award winner for her support on "Roseanne," but nothing matches the superlatives she has earned for her stage work (she last appeared locally in a 1992 production of "Wrong Turn at Lungfish" at the Coronet Theatre).

It was Metcalf's Obie-winning performance as the prostitute in a 1984 New York production of "Balm in Gilead" that created sufficient buzz to reach the ears of "Roseanne's" casting directors.

"(Producer) Marcy Carsey told us about her before the show was cast," Roseanne recalls. "She said, 'We've got the greatest actress in the country to play Jackie.' We were psyched."

"It's like having Michael Jordan on your team," says "My Thing of Love" director Michael Maggio, associate artistic director at the Goodman Theatre and a 1994 Obie winner for "Wings." "Her emotions are so accessible to her. All you need to do is create an environment for her to do what she does best, then let her go."

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