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Her Tony-nominated turn in last season's Well may have put her in the Broadway limelight, but Jayne Houdyshell's star has been shining in regional theatre for years.
Ada-Marie L. Gutierrez and Jayne Houdyshell in The Pain and the Itch.
Ada-Marie L. Gutierrez and Jayne Houdyshell in The Pain and the Itch. Photo by Joan Marcus

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In title and content, The Pain and the Itch at Playwrights Horizons doesn't sound as if Jayne Houdyshell is doing well at all, but she is - well beyond Well, you might even say.

Theatrical lightning struck last season, and there she was - on Broadway - a fully formed actress who didn't steal Lisa Kron's Well right out from under the nose of that splendid monologist-actor-author as much as she skyjacked it, playing Kron's Mama-in-a-muumuu, whose sideline-kibitzing turned into stage-managing, rewriting and massive overhauling.

Considering the thoroughness of this takeover, you could hardly call it a supporting performance, but that's how Houdyshell competed for the Tony, the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle awards. Prize-wise, she did quite well with Well: in addition to the Obie she got for the play's initial run at The Public in 2004 and the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award she won for its pre-Broadway gig in San Francisco, she netted two new trophies this year.

On the one hand, she's among 2006's New Faces, honored with a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut. On the other, she won the women's division of the 2006 Richard Seff Awards that Actors' Equity Foundation gives to "a female and male character actor, 50 years of age or older, for the best performance in a supporting role in a Broadway or Off-Broadway production." Or, as Houdyshell sums it up: "Basically, it's for surviving." She's the only person ever to win both these awards in the same year, and therein hangs the tale of a determined actress who has spent 25 of her 52 years in regional theatre, getting her act together by taking it on the road. "Overnight stardom" took her 32 years.

"I never wanted to be, simply, 'an aspiring actor' who worked in an office," Houdyshell admits. "For me, being an actor means working as an actor, so I always sought situations that would give me that. Regional theatres have been very nurturing to me as an actor."

The rewards of regional theatre are the smorgasbord of great roles laid out like on a platter for any journeyman actor willing to rise to the bait. Houdyshell rushed right into classically seasoned motherhood - Big Mama at 43, Linda Loman at 42, Lady Bracknell at 45 - and made it a specialty. "I've always been fortunate enough to play a broad range of roles, even as a young kid. I've played outside my actual age almost all my life, for the most part. Now, I'm at a point where I'm growing into the roles that I've always played."

Not that she confines herself to classics. "I really love doing new work. I love being in on that process. It feels like a privilege." That point is well taken with Well and roundly seconded by two plays that she premiered in the provinces (to prize-winning effect, not so incidentally) and which are only now reaching New York - practically simultaneously!

The Pain and the Itch, which earned her a Jefferson Award when it lifted off last year in Chicago at Steppenwolf, concludes its run at Playwrights Horizons Oct. 8 - three days after previews start up at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater for The Clean House, which won her a Barrymore Award when she did it the year before at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Both roles are more truly supporting than the one in Well ever was (more of an ensemble effort), but all three plays show how perfectly at home Houdyshell is in houses divided.

In The Clean House set forth by Sarah Ruhl, she played the central character's sister (a role being played by Jill Clayburgh in the upcoming Lincoln Center Theater production), who moves in and takes over the cleaning responsibilities from the maid-in-residence. "I think it would be fair to characterize her as fairly neurotic," Houdyshell concedes. "She's a compulsive cleaner, and her compulsion is based on a fear of death, and so her need is to keep her life as controlled and in order as possible. It's a beautiful part in a beautiful, beautiful play, and I'm really happy that New York is finally going to get to see this."

Ruhl's world may seem slow-track next to Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch, where dysfunction fairly gallops. Here, Houdyshell is the cheery matriarch with blinders on. She has two adult sons and a four-year-old granddaughter with a sexually transmitted rash. It all comes to light at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yes, it's a comedy - a pitch-black one.

And a prize-winning one. Norris' Itchy effort split the Jefferson Award for Best New Work last year with Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter. Steppenwolf has world-premiered five Norris works - the latest being The Unmentionables this summer - all but one directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who's introducing him as a playwright to New York with The Pain and the Itch. "It speaks very well of Steppenwolf that it is the theatre that produces him consistently," says Houdyshell. "I think he's got a very unique and important voice in the American theatre, and I'm glad it will be heard in New York."

Actually, it's been heard here before - Norris is a fine actor, too (Wrong Mountain, Biloxi Blues, An American Daughter) - he just has to go out of town to be heard as a playwright.

For Houdyshell, the phenomenon of finding your voice out of town ended seven years ago. "You reach a certain age where you want a little stability. It's tiresome living out of a suitcase. Which is not to say I won't go out of town to do certain things, but it needs to be something very special to get me out of town at this point - just because I did it for so long, continually. I was an itinerant actress a quarter of a century. For many years, that was very good - I just felt lucky to work - but now I want to stick around New York. I love working here and feeling, after a long time, that I really am part of the community here."

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