NEW YORK — As she staggers across the dirt stage of "Electra" every night, a daughter wrapped in her father's immense cloak, Zoe Wanamaker carries on a legacy that reaches back 2,400 years to the hillsides of ancient Greece. But the metaphor of her own father's cloak, that of the great actor Sam Wanamaker, weighs equally heavy on her small yet sturdy shoulders.
From her opening line in the acclaimed Broadway production of Sophocles' play--"Divine light, sweet air, again hear my pain"--Wanamaker portrays a daughter hellbent on avenging her father's murder by her mother. Enraged, she ignites a cycle of violence and revenge that is as old as civilization itself and as current as today's headlines.
The haunting, all-too-human drama thrilled Greeks in 413 BC, and, surprisingly, "Electra" has become a must-see this season in New York. When it closes Sunday after a four-month run, backers estimate it will have made $400,000, which is remarkable for a play that had no major corporate support and whose author isn't exactly a household name.
"All of what Sophocles wrote speaks to us today, because what does revenge get you? In the end, it amounts to nothing," says Wanamaker, nursing a cup of tea in the Chelsea loft she's lived in for the play's duration. "It's also great theater."
Great theater is something Zoe Wanamaker understood at an early age. Her father--a highly respected film and stage actor who spearheaded the campaign to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London--left her a huge legacy to carry on. Indeed, both of her parents died within the last five years, and the parallels between her loss and Electra's grief are powerful.
"They are a part of what I bring to the role," Wanamaker says. "A half hour before I go on stage, a video of my parents' deaths goes through my head, in a funny and sad kind of way. There were painful moments I remember with each of them, and in their way they were positively Greek.
"But it's not all personal," she quickly adds, noting that actors must not draw too heavily on their personal life in framing a character for the stage. "We have a truly superb cast, and they have made this production quite special."
Veterans like Claire Bloom, Stephen Spinella and Pat Carroll round out the fine ensemble, along with newer faces like Michael Cumpsty and Daniel Oreskes. Yet the key to all the excitement is Wanamaker, a fiery actress who plays nightly to standing ovations and is widely thought to be a leading contender for this year's best actress Tony Award.
Small, impish and volcanic, she paces the set in a state of rage, shifting in a heartbeat from the fury of a daughter scorned to the bewildered pain of a lost child. Her scalp is reddened where hair has been torn out in patches; her rasping voice roams the octaves of sorrow. By the play's end, Electra has achieved her deadly vengeance--but she is a hollow, shattered woman on whom blood drips from the heavens.
Wanamaker, 49, won the 1997 Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony) for the London production of "Electra." But as a 25-year veteran of stage, TV and screen, she was initially leery of doing Greek drama. Too many masks, she thought--too many choruses shrieking about the gods and not enough action.
"Then I talked with [director] David Leveaux, and he said: 'How about "Electra"? It's time you had a good scream.' My mom and dad had just died . . . and he'd only seen me do comedy."
Sam Wanamaker lost a long battle against cancer in 1993, and his wife, actress Charlotte Holland, died in 1997 of acute anemia. Both had a profound impact on Zoe, the second of three daughters, who was born in New York. The family moved to England when she was 3, after her father was blacklisted.
"The first time I read for 'Electra,' it was the scene where she sees an urn bearing what she thinks are her brother's ashes," Wanamaker says, a catch in her voice. "The first line is: 'Orestes, the man I loved most, this is all that is left of you.' And I remember looking at my father's ashes."
New York critics hailed her on opening night. "A performance of unarguable greatness is taking place under our noses," said the New York Observer. "Zoe Wanamaker is astounding. . . . [She] gives the proverbial performance of her career," wrote the New York Times. Wanamaker "must now be regarded as the greatest British classic actress of her generation," said New York Post drama critic Clive Barnes.
She pushes her performance to the edge--when Electra's mother (played by Bloom) is finally murdered, Wanamaker mimics her death cry, rolling in the dirt like a fetal monster. When her brother emerges from the killing scene, drenched in their mother's blood, she hungrily licks his hands.
In person, however, Wanamaker couldn't be more different from the character she plays. Irreverent, upbeat and earthy, she muses on the impact that eight weekly performances have had on her--a punishing drill that leaves her craving rest.
"My sex life," she declares, "has been ruined."