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Theater | THE ACTOR'S CRAFT

Going deep, rising high

Emerging from `Six Feet Under,' Frances Conroy scales `Pyrenees,' all the while keeping her balance between stage and screen.

July 02, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Frances Conroy ended the Broadway run of Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" in July 2000, she hardly thought it would be six whirligig years before she would tread the boards again.

What kept her away (for those in a premium-cable dead zone) was an HBO series with a rather unlikely premise -- an evening soap revolving around a mortuary business run by a family whose eccentric personalities revealed, episode after episode, the wide latitude in the meaning of "normal."

Conroy recalled the charmed sequence of events as though it were a movie flashing before her: "The day after we closed in New York, I flew back to L.A., and the day after that I was shooting the pilot for 'Six Feet Under.' I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm Alice in Wonderland.' "

It's not that Conroy -- a Juilliard-trained veteran with an Obie, a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination to her credit -- had wanted to take a hiatus from the stage. But given the chance to emerge from its relative obscurity, how could she not allow herself an extended sabbatical?

Still, to hear her talk about her role in "Pyrenees," which opens next Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is to know that, whatever success befalls her in TV or film, returning to the theater will always be a kind of homecoming for her.

Bear in mind, however, that a homecoming isn't the same thing as living at home. How often Conroy will return to the theater is unclear, least of all to her. Wrapped in the posthumous glow of "Six Feet Under," she's keeping her options open. But she'll trust her instincts -- rather than her "people" -- to guide her.

"I just thought this was a beautiful play," she says of Scottish playwright David Greig's 2005 drama, now receiving its American premiere. "I was offered something in New York within the last couple of months that everyone thought I should do. But I didn't care what anyone else said. I knew I'd be absolutely miserable doing that other play. I didn't really think there was a human being talking. You can't hate a part -- you have to live in the person."

She describes "Pyrenees," which revolves around an amnesiac man found in the mountains trying to recover his lost identity, as a "chamber piece." Not to give too much away, Conroy plays a woman from his past who has been searching for him for quite some time.

"What attracted me most was the sense of tiny figures against a vast landscape," Conroy says. "There's an awareness of mortality and a sense that you've left everything behind and are in a state of suspension."

Sitting in a stark room with bad overhead lighting just before a long rehearsal day at Center Theatre Group's downtown headquarters, Conroy looks younger than Ruth, the frowsy mother she played on "Six Feet Under." Dressed in a brown sundress, she wears her long, pale red hair down (as was her custom when her character was in one of her more sensual moods). Her watery blue eyes lend an impression of sincere attention, though there's a subtle reserve in her manner. Friendly but not effusive, she's anything but an open book.

"Warmly aloof" is one way to describe Conroy's intriguing appeal, which informs her roles as much as it does her interview style. To give an example, she spoke at length about her early exposure to theater as a child, the Long Island high school that encouraged her to challenge herself as a dramatic actress, and her parents' embrace of her theatrical interests, which led to her taking Saturday classes as a teen at the legendary Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan.

It's only when she speaks of her college years that she mentions, almost incidentally, that her father died when she was in high school and that she was "mixed up," worried about money and not sure what to do with her life.

Her musings about the way teachers can open up new worlds came from her heart, but her painful early loss was skirted. And because she's otherwise so forthcoming, it seems wrong to pry. Conroy projects a respect for the unspoken pathos of the characters she plays, and it's hard not to follow suit when grappling with her own.

The suggestion of a sadness capped within herself is surely one of the qualities that has led her to be cast in the American premieres of plays by Miller, Edward Albee, Richard Nelson and David Hare -- a list that shows Conroy had quite a respectable career before Alan Ball, the creator of "Six Feet Under," entered her life.

True, she was the kind of actress -- not unlike her slightly older peer Mary Beth Hurt -- whose talent outstripped her stardom. Fortunately for Conroy, the measure for success has been steady work, and on that score she's been outstanding.

Movie-wise, her resume may be no great shakes -- a trio of small parts in Woody Allen films, one memorable indie ("Rocket Gibraltar") and numerous appearances in bigger-budget fare in which she was often the supporting cast's supporting cast.

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