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Elizabeth Ashley, One-Woman Roller Coaster

Theater * One part actress, one part force of nature, the former Broadway It girl stars in 'The Glass Menagerie.'

April 24, 2001|FRANK RIZZO | HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. — You can't say Elizabeth Ashley didn't warn me.

"Aside from all my disabilities and injuries, I can't really focus," she says as she sweeps into the green room right outside the rehearsal hall. "I've come right from work, so you'll probably get the [worst] interview you've ever gotten in your life."

But then, as she plops down on the couch, lifts her glass of red wine and lights up the first of many cigarettes, she adds tantalizingly, "Or maybe not."

Call her Holden Caulfield's illegitimate mother. Auntie Mame on speed. The Madwoman of the Carltons. She's a gypsy, a witch, a dervish. Climb aboard the Miz Liz Express and fasten your seat belts because this ride doesn't have any rest stops. Ashley is in town to play Amanda in Hartford Stage's production of "The Glass Menagerie" because of two men. One is Tennessee Williams, with whom she is famously identified, beginning with the landmark production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1974. Since then, she has become his Madonna of Lost Souls, his Lady of Perpetual Angst.

The other lure is Michael Wilson, artistic director at Hartford Stage, with whom she has formed a special bond during the past decade in a series of productions featuring works by Williams and Edward Albee.

"I owed this one to Tennessee," Ashley says. "He extracted from me a blood oath in my mother's presence a thousand years ago--actually, it was the late '70s. There was a time--I know it's hard to believe--when I was too young to play a lot of these parts. And he said to me"--and here she slips into a Southern Comfort accent--"You've gotta promise me that before you die you will do these four plays: 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,' 'The Red Devil Battery Sign,' 'Sweet Bird of Youth' and 'The Glass Menagerie.'

"The last one that was looming over me was this one. I think in my heart of hearts that he wanted me to do this one because of my mother. Tennessee was quite charmed by my mother. She had that Southern experience, and she made the air sound just right. I think my mother sounded like Amanda to him."

But if her mother was the indomitable Amanda, Elizabeth was no fragile Laura.

"No, I was her Tom," she says, referring to the wanderlust son in the play, "and I was plotting my escape."

Born in 1939, Ashley grew up an only child in Baton Rouge, La. Her mother lived a life not unlike that of Amanda, trying to raise her child alone.

Ashley as a youth was spirited, speedy and free-willed.

"When I was younger, my brain raced," she says. "It's not that it thought deeper or better. It was like there was this ticker tape going around in my head, and I was always trying to keep up with that. You see, I am hyperkinetic as well as being dyslexic. My brain just gets too many signals at one time. When I was younger, I could get really, really wound, where I couldn't always stop myself."

She escaped from the South after a stint at Louisiana State University. At 19, she fled to Manhattan to become "an adventuress." She began a modeling career, and when she began taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse to help her lose her accent, she found a different life course.

She made her Broadway debut in 1959. And in 1962, George Abbott directed her in the comedy "Take Her, She's Mine," in which she played opposite Art Carney and won a Tony Award. The following year, Neil Simon tailored "Barefoot in the Park" for her, a smash comedy that Mike Nichols directed with co-star Robert Redford. With that hit, she became Broadway's prom queen, a role a conflicted Ashley relished and loathed.

She also started her film career with the notorious-in-its-time steamer "The Carpetbaggers." In the same week in 1963 that she was on the cover of Life, the belle of Broadway and a new film star, she checked herself into a psychiatric ward for a nervous breakdown. It was a time she details in her freewheeling 1978 autobiography, "Actress: Postcards From the Road."

After receiving psychiatric help, she bought herself out of her Broadway contract and returned to Hollywood. In the land of compliant blonds, Ashley was the dark-haired beauty who couldn't be tamed. She quickly gained a reputation for bucking the establishment, shocking gossip columnists "There's a reason why I quit the rackets a number of times back when I was the Julia Roberts of the universe for five seconds. I hold the cult of celebrity in withering contempt. I don't have an internal sensor, and sooner or later I'll just say what I think."

ELIZABETH ASHLEY

and studio heads. But in 1965, she wed leading man George Peppard and supplanted her career with marriage and motherhood. That marriage ended in the early 1970s and produced a son, screenwriter Christian, 33. (Ashley also was married to actor James Farentino in the early 1960s, when both were young, struggling actors in New York.)

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