Mary Louise Wilson: Older, Wiser and Loving It, in Off-Broadway's 4000 Miles

By Harry Haun
18 Jun 2011

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 Miles
photo by Erin Baiano
Born in New Haven and brought up in New Orleans, Wilson resides in New York City when she's working and farther upstate, in Stone Ridge, when she's not busy.

"I have family living in New Orleans, and I've been down there a couple of winters teaching at Tulane. It's having quite a renaissance in terms of music. There's a life there — a theatrical life there, too. And movies — they do a lot of films down there."

Wilson debuted in theatre D.O.A. almost 55 years ago as Second Dead Lady in an Our Town that Jose Quintero directed at Circle in the Square. Since then, she has been one of almost everything — nun (Sister Mary Ignatius etc.), stripper (Gypsy's tassled Tessie Tura), The Beard of Avon's Queen Elizabeth, Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen, The Importance of Being Earnest's Miss Prism, Cabaret's Fraulein Schneider (a 1998 Tony nominee, no less), even an earlier Commie (Flora, The Red Menace's Comrade Ada).

Of late, if she hasn't been working on stage, she has been writing off-stage, and the results were recently published by Dramatists Play Service — a series of six playlets under the umbrella title of Theatrical Haiku. "They're short, little plays, most of them about the theatre and based on my own experiences. One of them is called Lost, and it's about two women who can't remember a goddamn thing. Another one is called In the Dressing Room, which is about people coming backstage and crowding into the dressing room and saying all the wrong things. Then there's one about actors' laughs. You could be playing Lear, and you feel like somebody's taking a laugh from you. Deer Play is about my life away from the theatre. When I'm not employed, I'm a big-time gardener, and I have a terrible problem with deer eating everything I try to grow. It's every gardener's problem."

She has also knocked off a chunk of what would have been a refreshingly bitter autobiography before abandoning it. "I was going to called my memoirs 'My First 100 Years in Show Business,' and they were pretty bitter, and I couldn't do it.

"Mine aren't stories as much as they are my wayward journey through commercials and summer stock and regional theatre and touring — all the back alleys in between the Broadway shows — and all the horrendous things that go on. Well, it's a helluvah business, as far as I'm concerned, but, if all of it had been like this, I would have a totally different view. 4000 Miles has been so joyous, every part of it.

"First of all, I adore this company," she says, including Greta Lee and Zoe Winters, who play women in the life of her grandson. "I love these three people, and they don't make anything about my being older. The only thing is: All of my references escape them. They don't know any of them. It's not that they're ignorant. They're all really bright and very serious actors. My memoir would be so irrelevant to the public today when I see how my references don't register with young people. I can't tell stories about Bert Lahr. They've never heard of Bert Lahr. It wouldn't work."

But Mary Louise Wilson works, and people on both sides of the footlights are better for it.