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Tennessee Williams' 'The Glass Menagerie' speaks to Judith Ivey

'I've been preparing for this role for a long time,' says the actress, who is bringing her performance as Amanda Wingfield to the Mark Taper Forum.

September 05, 2010|By David Rooney, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — — The last time Judith Ivey played a Tennessee Williams role was opposite Karl Malden. As introductions to playwrights go, it's hard to imagine many more authoritative guides than a man who had famously shared the stage with Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter in Elia Kazan's 1947 premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Judith Ivey: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about actress Judith Ivey's taking on the role of Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie" said that she'd appeared in Neil Dunn's play "Steaming." The playwright's first name is Nell. —

Ivey's encounter with Malden was roughly 40 years ago, while she was studying acting at Illinois State University. The play was "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

"Karl Malden came to our school as an artist master-class teacher, and I did Maggie the Cat," she recalled. "My acting partner irritated Mr. Malden, so Mr. Malden told him 'Go sit down,' and he got up and became Brick. It was amazing. If there's anyone who's not like Brick it's him, but he just became Brick."

That workshop created a hunger to perform in a Williams play that has gnawed at Ivey ever since and is now yielding what may be the performance of her career as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie."

Directed by Gordon Edelstein, who has stripped the play of its sentimentality and coaxed his cast members to a piercing understanding of their characters, the production began life at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 2009. After an extended off-Broadway run for Roundabout Theater Company in the spring, it comes to Los Angeles Sept. 12 for a five-week engagement at the Mark Taper Forum.

"I had wanted to play Amanda since high school when I first started acting," Ivey said over a salad in the green room of the Laura Pels Theater during the New York run. She was joined by Edelstein and by Patch Darragh, who plays Amanda's son, Tom.

"I've been preparing for this role for a long time," she said. "I think I understand Tennessee Williams better than I would Arthur Miller. There are certain American playwrights that speak to me. I grew up in Texas and have tons of Southern relatives, so the South is a part of who I am."

Many actors tend to overplay the faded-Southern-belle aspect of Amanda, substituting mannered, half-mad girlishness for emotional complexity and often misplacing the humor in her impassioned reveries. Not only is Ivey richly funny in the role, her approach to the character is clear-eyed, trenchant and fearless, revealing the pathos of this suffocating, self-deluded woman by subtle degrees. Even at her most exasperating or insensitive, Amanda's behavior is clearly motivated by overwhelming love for her children.

"I never had any interest in portraying Blanche," Ivey said of the role in "Streetcar" that traditionally is considered the actor's holy grail among Williams' women."There's something inherent in her that doesn't really speak to me, where there's something in Amanda that does. He has a range of women, and I tend to be on the more earthy side of it."

Ivey won Tony Awards for featured actress in a play in 1983 for Neil Dunn's "Steaming," and for David Rabe's "Hurlyburly" two years later. In addition to numerous acting and directing credits on stage, her film roles over the years have ranged from " Brighton Beach Memoirs" through "The Lonely Guy" to "Flags of Our Fathers."

It's surprising that a two-time Tony-winning American actor with four decades' experience is only now making her debut in a professional production of a Tennessee Williams play. But the entire key creative team here is relatively new to the playwright, which may account for the freshness of the production's insights.

Edelstein, who has been artistic director of Long Wharf since 2002 and for the five years before that of Seattle's ACT Theater, had been biding his time to stage the play.

"I first saw it when I was a teenager, in a college production," he said. "I'm sure if I saw that production today I might have issues with it, but at the time I was devastated by the beauty of the play. I'm not one of those directors who thinks at age 25 he can direct every play. But I've felt ready for the last five or six years to do 'The Glass Menagerie' and was waiting for the right moment." When the production comes to Los Angeles, three original castmembers will be joined by Ben McKenzie ("Southland") as the Gentleman Caller.

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