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No fear in the face of `Woolf'

Kathleen Turner gets naked in a new way. By summoning her real-life struggles, she's a match for Martha that's dead-on.

February 04, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — WHAT a dump.

The rickety table in a grimy little Manhattan office is littered with coffee cups and old newspapers. Steam pipes hiss in the old Midtown building and the windows are caked with dirt. The scene is eerily quiet on this winter afternoon, but then a booming, howling voice shatters the calm. Down the hall, actors are rehearsing for the national tour of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and Kathleen Turner, cast as Martha, is ripping into her husband, George.

"You getting angry, baby?" she bellows, blistering him for failing to live up to his potential. "Maybe Georgie boy didn't have the stuff

First appearances are deceiving in the dreary rehearsal space, and the surprises are just beginning. When the first act draws to a fiery close, Turner huddles briefly with director Anthony Page, then strides across the room to greet a visitor. The actress who shot to stardom as a smoldering blond temptress in 1981's "Body Heat" looks shockingly transformed: She's now a heavyset, middle-aged woman with puffy eyes. Her voice is wracked with a cough, her brown hair unkempt. Battles she has fought with rheumatoid arthritis, drinking, a collapsing marriage, weight gain and gossip are writ large on her face.

Turner looks perfectly cast, in other words, for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," which opens Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre. And she couldn't care less if friends in Hollywood are shocked by her appearance, if insiders titter that the once-svelte bombshell has frittered away her film career. She presents herself boldly, oozing physical confidence, as if to say: "This is me. Deal with it."

And while you're at it, get ready for a theatrical assault.

Albee's play, which shocked audiences when it opened in 1962, pitilessly exposes the sickening prison of a long-term marriage. But it also reveals the dark, psychological bonds that enable a couple as quarrelsome, as viciously sadistic as George and Martha, to remain together. Besides Turner, the cast includes Bill Irwin, who will be reprising his 2005 Tony-winning role of George. They're joined by David Furr and Kathleen Early as Nick and Honey, the unsuspecting couple who are lured to George and Martha's house for a 2 a.m. round of fun and games, such as "Get the Guest" and "Hump the Hostess."

Critics in New York, London and Washington, D.C., have hailed Turner's performance. The London Evening Standard raved that "the lethally effective, mesmerizing Miss Turner, a butch, boozy broad in a middle-aged spread of malice, and a tight blouse, does her sadistic bit with all the lazy nonchalance of a maid swatting flies."

Less than five years ago, Turner, now 52, starred on Broadway as Mrs. Robinson in a dramatic version of "The Graduate," the 1967 movie. For a celebrated 20 seconds, she stood naked onstage. Those days are behind her. But on the morning after the "Virginia Woolf" rehearsal, in a quiet hotel coffee shop, Turner let out a lusty laugh when asked what it's like to play the Wife from Hell.

"I read the play when I was about 20, and I loved Martha, the excitement, the recklessness, the pathos, the tragedy of her," she said. "And I thought, 'OK, when I'm 50, this will be my role.' " Years later, she had gained a keener insight into the character's psychology, and although Turner was initially terrified to take on such an iconic part, "I really did think I was the one to do the role, that I am the one to do it."

She has big shoes to fill. Uta Hagen played Martha memorably in the original cast; Colleen Dewhurst led a highly praised 1976 revival in New York, and Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her performance in the 1966 film. But Albee says Turner's performance is stellar: "She reminds me of Uta Hagen," he said by phone. "They both got the essence of Martha -- the intelligence, the toughness, the irony, the self-deception. And I think Kathleen has a bit more humor than Uta did."

Comedy is a key weapon for Martha, and it also serves Turner well in real life. Unlike other former ingenues -- who rail against Hollywood's scorn for older actresses -- the star of "Romancing the Stone," "Prizzi's Honor" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" happily thumbs her nose at the film biz. She scoffs at the notion that men in their 50s and 60s can star with younger women, while mature actresses are put out to pasture.

Indeed, Turner has just won two prestigious acting awards for the recently concluded British run of "Virginia Woolf" -- the London Evening Standard award and the London Critics' Circle award -- and she's a finalist for this year's Olivier. And she was nominated for a Tony in the 2005 Broadway revival.

All of this is a source of immense pride. While Turner insists she's not bitter about a box office career that has noticeably slowed, she talks caustically about Tinseltown and the reception she expects when "Virginia Woolf" opens.

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