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Taking aim at a not-so-deadly duo

Empathy for Fromme, Moore fuels actresses in the Tony-nominated 'Assassins' revival.

June 02, 2004|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — In a scene from "Assassins," the Tony-nominated revival of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical, there is a fictional meeting between Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the would-be killers of President Ford. "I was like you once. Lost, confused ... ," Fromme says sympathetically to Moore before declaring, with the certitude of an Amway salesperson, how Charlie Manson saved her.

However backhanded, it is a rare moment of sisterhood in a chillingly dark episodic musical that features seven other assassins from history, all male and bookended by John Wilkes Booth, who killed President Lincoln, and John Hinckley, whose target was President Reagan. As such, it is a relief from all that testosterone pinging around the carnival setting of "Assassins" at Studio 54. But there is as well a lot of black humor in the deadpan interaction between the women -- one a hooded Manson devotee, the other a suburban housewife.

Moore, married five times and the mother of four, had an unorthodox child-rearing approach, to say the least. "You brought your kid [to an assassination]?!" the usually nonplused Fromme says at one point, unconvinced by Moore's excuse that she misread the school calendar and couldn't find a baby-sitter.

"The audience warms up to us in a way they don't expect," says Mary Catherine Garrison, who plays Fromme. "And I think it's because we take the [absurdity] so seriously. The more truthful we make the scene, the funnier it is."

It helps that the two women did not come close to succeeding in their respective assassination attempts on Ford, which occurred 17 days apart in September 1975 in California. Fromme's gun wasn't even loaded; the bullets were in her purse. "And Moore couldn't hit the side of a barn," says Becky Ann Baker, who plays the peripatetic loser who moved from job to job and husband to husband.

But if the characters are firing wildly, the actors who play them in this acclaimed revival are right on target. "Baker and Garri- son are a particularly hilarious sister act," Charles Isherwood wrote in Variety, one of several admiring reviews for two women appreciated as among the best character actors in New York theater.

Audience response has varied wildly, from enthusiastic applause to sullen silence and even the occasional walkout or shouted epithet. The latter has only served to reinforce the company that they are succeeding in their mission. Theater should unsettle, Garrison says.

Sitting in their shared dressing room at Studio 54 -- the nurturing social center for the company -- the two actresses are an odd couple: Garrison is blond, voluptuous, chatty and in her 20s, speaking in the lilting accent of her native Louisiana, which she previously plied to comic effect in off-Broadway's "Debbie Does Dallas." The older and more experienced Baker ("Titanic"), who is married to the actor Dylan Baker, is a picture of Midwestern reticence.

Though the two approached their roles divergently, they both say that the social and psychological complexities illuminated by their explorations made it less easy to simply dismiss their respective characters as nut cases.

"These are not the most stable people in the world, but they are human beings, not monsters," Garrison says. "They were brought up in the same world, brought up in the same country and culture. I think for a lot of people the really disturbing question this show asks is, 'Are they really that different from us?' "

In the course of her research, Garrison began a correspondence with Fromme, who is incarcerated in a Fort Worth, Texas, prison. She indicates a recently arrived letter on her dressing room table, its precise calligraphic handwriting a reflection of someone with a lot of time on her hands. "I was surprised by the sweetness and gentleness in her letters," the actress says of the woman who is often erroneously believed to have been at least peripherally involved in the notorious Manson murders. (Fromme, in fact, was in jail at the time for a minor driving infraction.)

"She's been very generous with me, even though this isn't the most flattering portrait," Garrison adds, noting that Fromme had read John Weidman's published script of the musical and felt that she came off "maudlin and pathetic" in it. "I responded, 'Don't worry, that's not the way I'm playing you.' "

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