REGIONAL THEATRE -- Feb. 1997
It's hard to believe that the acid-tongued Elizabeth Ashley has never played one of Edward Albee's astringent and smart-alecky heroines -- or anti-heroines, as the case may be. But now she's added the biggest mother of them of them all to her resume -- Martha in the playwright's legendary Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The garrulous star of theatre, film and television played the role originally created by Uta Hagen on Broadway in a January engagement at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in South Florida. If critical and audience response is any gauge to the production, directed by Michael Wilson and co-starring Frank Converse, we'll be seeing her again in the role some time soon.
Catching up with Ashley just before the opening, however, the flamboyant actress was admitting to a bad case of the jitters as she was about to step into what she called "the most eruptive, volcanic and violent, yet subtle" drama she'd ever assayed. "How am I? I should tell you that I'm in the twilight zone, if that weren't too shallow a thing to say," she said in a voice made raspy through the intensity of a short rehearsal period and a role that demands a good deal of braying. "This is really a mystery play, a psychological mystery play, that peels and peels and peels away. As an actor, it requires everything that you've ever learned, been taught, suspected or intuited, and yet you must also act as if though you are a stone beginner."
Ashley, of course, has quite a lot of history to pour into the role, having started as the young darling of Broadway in such light comedies, Take Her, She's Mine and Barefoot in the Park and progressed to become one of the foremost interpreters of Tennessee Williams, on Broadway in such productions as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Garden District and, most recently, Off-Broadway in The Red Devil Battery Sign.
"Both Edward and Tennessee are poets, and from a lowly actor's point of view, they both have such precision in their writing that if you get into their arias in a rhythmically wrong way, you're done for," she says. "They are both geniuses and visionaries who see through to the center of the middle of the marrow of the soul, so once you get it, you can just ride with it.
"But getting it!!!" she exclaims with desperation. "Getting it challenges everything, everything about yourself, everything you've been lauded for, every assumption you've every made about yourself as an artist and professional. Everything is just shattered. I'm so in awe of Edward's writing, and yet I know I won't have succeeded until there is no more awe. He's a genius, but a hard genius. Nothing is compromised in this play."
Ashley, of course, is helped by the fact that she can identify with the character, perhaps more than most other actresses. There is Martha's primal need to be heard, her hungers, sexual and otherwise, and her rage. "Somebody once told me that a really good prize fighter was only really dangerous when they were coming off the floor, that's when you have to watch it," she recalls. "And that's true of me, to some modest degree. I only seem to survive well, creatively, when I'm coming off the floor. I know and understand merciless Martha. 'Need' is simply too small a word for her."
-- By Patrick Pacheco