On, Danner

Special Features   On, Danner Blythe Danner, who has played her share of wounded Williams women, now takes on one of the playwright's most formidable in Suddenly Last Summer.
Blythe Danner in Suddenly Last Summer.
Blythe Danner in Suddenly Last Summer. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Well, at least this time out, Blythe Danner won’t be bothered with that clichéd "Blythe Spirit" headline that has been dogging her for four decades of stage acting. She is playing a pretty wild card in Suddenly Last Summer, the Tennessee Williams drama that the Roundabout Theatre Company is reviving (through January) at its Laura Pels Theatre.

And blithe is not the word for Mrs. Violet Venable, the vindictive widow who, having lost her only son, the gay Sebastian, to a mysterious death, is lobbying for a lobotomy for the procurer-cousin he was with, Catherine (Carla Gugino), even to the point of bribing the young woman's mother (Becky Ann Baker), brother (Wayne Wilcox) and doctor (Gale Harold). No, this isn't the Blythe Danner we know and love.

Precisely, beams the actress, obviously relishing the opportunity to splash about in the darker colors on her palate. "Why keep doing these plays unless you do a little bit of a different take on them? I don't understand why people criticize productions that are brave enough to make a statement that is different from the one that they are always used to."

Willowy and WASPy, perfect for the works of John Updike ("Too Far To Go") and A.R. Gurney (Ancestral Voices), Blythe has her aunt and father to thank for her name. They were cued by Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, which was winding down on Broadway at the time of her birth. Leonora Corbett was wafting about the Booth, haunting the daylights out of Clifton Webb in a role Danner redid 44 years later opposite Richard Chamberlain. "We like unusual names in our family, clearly," declares the mom of Gwyneth and the granny of Apple. Her own full name is Blythe Katharine Danner, and Mrs. Venable is her fourth Katharine Hepburn role. There is no Master Plan here, she's quick to insist: "My mother was a Katharine, with an 'a' in the middle, just like Hepburn. Who would dare to attempt to usurp Katharine Hepburn? Who could? That's not my intention, ever. I think it's because there's not a plethora of great female roles, and she was certainly one to suss them out. It's just she had good taste, and for those of us who try to follow in her footsteps — although not necessarily step by step — things just happen to fall into place."

Ken Howard was her foil for two of her Hepburn roles — in a short 1973 TV-sitcom run of "Adam's Rib" and in a Williamstown Theatre Festival revival of Philip Barry's Holiday, with Marisa Berenson as the odd-sister-out. "Mrs. Barry came to see that and loved our production."

Danner is the only actress to follow Hepburn on to Broadway in The Philadelphia Story (albeit at a respectful distance of 40 years), and it didn't hurt she actually hailed from the Main Line. "I grew up just the town away from Bryn Mawr, and, yes, there are certainly people like that. I met the woman Mr. Barry wrote this about. She was a lovely, elegant, straightforward woman. Those women have a wonderful spirit that's full of sass, and the men always seem to stand behind them. That's how I would describe it. They're colorful, dynamic women, much as Katharine Hepburn was, a thoroughbred."

Last September, the connection was solidified: She and Lauren Bacall were awarded the first Katharine Hepburn Medals at the launch of Bryn Mawr College's Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center. "I think they're beginning a Katharine Hepburn scholarship there, and they've decided to do this to raise money as well as honor women who are as committed in society as she was. I've been working with the environment for 30 years. I'm pretty passionate about that and Planned Parenthood. I thought, 'Isn't this ironic I'm doing a Hepburn role right now?' Of course, I have to strive all the harder now to do it."

Suddenly Last Summer is also her fourth Williams play and her fourth Roundabout show (after Moonlight, The Deep Blue Sea and Follies). She has almost done The Ages of Woman with Williams, earning her Equity card as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, playing a love-starved Miss Alma at Williamstown and on PBS in Eccentricities of a Nightingale and delivering a love-shattered, Tony-nominated Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Naturally, she hopes to give Amanda Wingfield a shot. (Hepburn did, after all.)

"Roundabout feels like a home to me, and I feel safe enough to try something that is as adventurous as this play is. We're so fortunate as actors to have a place like this to work and do things that wouldn't be done. This play wouldn't be done on Broadway unless it were with Maggie Smith or someone huge like that. You have to be willing to be kind of naked. It's very revealing and raw — Tennessee Williams at his most exposed."

Since Follies, she has logged half a decade on the small screen — profitably. In 2005, she found herself up for three Emmys — as star, guest star and supporting actress — winning for the latter as Hank Azaria's off-kilter mom on "Huff" and repeating that win this year.

The Tony she got in 1970 was on her debut Broadway bounce, playing a divorced teenage flower-child in Butterflies Are Free. Now she has gone on to a deeper, darker part of the garden, moving from butterflies to Venus flytraps. "I like to keep reaching and growing. I'm never too old for that. I've always been so drawn to the theatre, and I'm so happy to be back. I've not done that process in a while. This is my first time onstage in five years. I've been doing TV and film and [being a] grandmother. I am of a certain age now, y'know."

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