Elizabeth Ashley's friendship with legendary playwright Tennessee Williams, resulting from her acclaimed performance as Maggie the Cat in the mid-70's Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is well known. But what of the oath the writer of A Streetcar Named Desire extracted from the Tony winner right in front of her own mother? He made her promise that in her career she would play his The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, The Red Devil Battery Sign, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Glass Menagerie. Ashley had performed the first three (two of them Off-Broadway), but not until 2001 did she finally complete her promise to Tenn. She's playing Amanda Wingfield in a traveling production of Menagerie, making its final (and, as she tells it, prematurely last) stop at Houston's Alley Theatre Aug. 24-Sept. 22.
Playbill On-Line: I've read a couple of the reviews from the show and I was surprised to read about how funny you are, that your Amanda is "lovable and sexy," as one review said. I always thought of her character as this awful bitchy woman. How did you come to this interpretation?
Elizabeth Ashley: One, by being Southern and coming from a long line of Southern women. Two, through my relationship with Tennessee, having done so much of his work and from knowing him so well for a long time. And, knowing him, led me to my mother, who was always known as Miss Lucielle. Tennessee just adored by mother. The minute her back was turned, he'd giggle his maniacal giggle and say, "She's Amanda Wingfield, she's Amanda Wingfield." In many ways, she was. Bottom line, I based this character on my mother, who was an archetype of a certain type of Southern woman. My mother was an adolescent and teenager during the Great Depression. The Depression was bad and terrible everywhere, but it was worse in the South because many of those families had never recovered from Reconstruction. They were the old Southern aristocracy— or that's how they thought of themselves—who were just vanquished. Plus, my mother left my father when I was an infant and never remarried. She was a single mother before there was such a thing. Like Amanda Wingfield. I didn't set out to be funny or sexy. It had to come out of the character. And Amanda should be as tragic and violent and raging as she is funny or anything else. But it's all in the text; it's just a close, close reading of the text. Amanda has that self-mocking sense of humor that is so peculiar to Southern woman. As she says in the very first scene, which is utterly true of Southern women, it wasn't enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure, no, she needed to have a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions. She had to understand the art of conversation. I think too often this play has been approached as a solemn brown Valentine, which it isn't. Quite often, for some reason, in her later incarnations, Amanda became like an older Blanche duBois, a wispy loony toon or a vicious nag. There are all those things in her, but she's the most realistic person in the play. She's the one who sees the wolf at the door. Everything she says about their life situation is true.
PBOL: You knew Tennessee Williams very well, as you've said. Is there any story or anything he said that you feel sums him up as a person? EA: He said it over and over again—not just to me, I think he's famous for saying it. But he said, "The only true sin is gratuitous cruelty" and I think that is absolutely true.
PBOL: Which of Williams' women was your favorite role to play?
EA: It's a toss up between [Amanda] and Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth.
PBOL: I had heard that at one time there were hopes to bring this production to Broadway.
EA: Not just hopes! Oh, no, no. We had a producer, the money was raised, all of it. PBOL: Everything was ready?
PBOL: But someone else has the rights. EA: Most of Tennessee's life, after the successes of what I call the "sex, South and sin" plays, they went after him like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Through a very peculiar route, the rights to his plays ended up with his friend, Maria Saint Just, who was kind of a groupie. But Tennessee trusted her with one thing, most important to his life, which was to always provide for his sister Rose. You know, the one who had the lobotomy and was in the home. Rose, of course, outlived them all and, as we gathered, died happier than the rest of them. Tennessee made Maria the executor of the rights to his plays. Maria lived in London and she couldn't do it by herself; she wasn't a professional. There was a British agent involved; then he died. Now there's a guy, I think he's a lawyer, named Tom Earhart. The art circuit—like we're on, the not-for-profits—we have the rights, but Broadway, a Class A tour, those are what are called the "world-wide rights." When Michael Wilson [director of The Glass Menagerie] saw Tom in London, he told him, "There's a possibility that we might want to bring it into New York." Supposedly—I've been told, secondhand, time and time again—Tom Earhart said, "I would certainly be loathe to stand between Elizabeth Ashley and a Broadway production of this play." Now [Broadway] is all contingent on of you get the notices, if you do the business, are there lines outside the box office, are audiences loving it. We got all of that. Then Jeffrey Richards and all of his big "mule money" (that's a Southern term—the big mules are the guys with the big money) said we want in, we want to do this. Rarely have I done something that audiences have absolutely adored and enjoyed more than this. So when Michael called, Tom said, "Well, no." He'd given the rights to a British producer Bill Kenwright, who had produced the quite brilliant Long Day's Journey into Night in London with Jessica Lange. So we have no leverage. At my age, I am, of course, devastated by this. [Losing the rights] devastated me. Essentially, I feel we've made this play hot again for whoever does it that's not me.
PBOL: So this is it for you. This is your last production of this Glass Menagerie.
EA: I think so, yeah. I mean, it's grueling and I am 62 years old. This is a brutally grueling play. In that first act, I'm the protagonist in every single scene and in every single scene I'm coming from a different emotional place. The only time I'm off stage is when I'm making a fast change. Technically, verbally, emotionally, in every way, it's brutal. So I think this is it.
PBOL: After playing so many great parts, are there any roles left that you still want to play?
EA: Not much. In our culture, women 62 years old are supposed to be hidden in the closet or burned at the stake, when actually we're the most interesting observers of life. But there's a play I have a passion for that I won't get to do because they're making a musical of it, but I've always wanted to do: The Visit. I've always wanted to get a decent translation of it because that is a play I deeply understand. I saw Lynn Fontanne do it when I was 18 or 19 years old and I've always known I have a visceral understanding of that play that is fierce. I'd also like to play one of Sam Shepard's bad old women. Sam Shepard wrote some gnarly old broads.
— By Christine Ehren