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

By Harry Haun
June 18, 2011

The Tony Award-winning star of Grey Gardens talks about her mothballed memoirs — and her passion for gardening, playwriting and her new role Off-Broadway.



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It says something about the art and range of Mary Louise Wilson that her best-known performances are fashion statements that couldn't be more contradictory.

At one extreme, in the one-person show she wrote with Mark Hampton called Full Gallop, she's Diana Vreeland, the high-priestess of high-fashion who dictated and defined style for three decades by editing first Harper's Bazaar and then Vogue. That won her a Drama Desk Award. The Tony came a decade later as the Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens, a highborn society-type in an advance state of disarray but oddly oblivious to the squalor to which she has sunk.

4000 Miles is another measure, a new play by Amy Herzog at The Duke on 42nd Street as part of the LCT3 initiative of Lincoln Center Theater. The veteran actress (who will turn 79 in November) and a trio of twentysomethings are directed by Daniel Aukin.

Here, she is a Granny-was-a-Commie mixed-bag, interacting with a 21-year-old grandson (Gabriel Ebert), who has dragged himself to her West Village doorstep — presumably, the aforementioned 4000 miles — for much-needed R&R after a cross-country bike trip has cost him his best friend's life. The ensuing play is about both generations of outsiders, 70 years apart, finding their ways in today's world.

"The character's based on the author's grandmother," relays Wilson. "It was obvious to me this a real person when I read it. Amy's grandmother is 92 and doing fine.

Wilson in 4000 Miles.
photo by Erin Baiano
"I find now that I'm older I'm very conscious of ageism — y'know, being treated as an old person. I notice when I get on the subway these days, right away I get a seat — and I don't turn it down anymore. I just take it. That's how society is, but this is a woman who is old and mad, and I identify with that. It's great to play someone who isn't a cliché. I thought a lot about how old I should be — whether I should affect more age — and I was told, 'Don't worry about it.' I do try to let myself slump."

A card-carrying old firebrand flickers persistently from the evidence here at hand in 4000 Miles, and from that in After the Revolution, Herzog's related gathering of old lefties at Playwrights Horizons last November. "Lois Smith played the same character I do, Vera, the grandmother, in that one, and I thought this might interfere with my doing it — seeing another actress do it another way," she notes, but Smith was otherwise occupied four blocks west on 42nd at Signature Theatre in The Illusion, playing the weary sorcerer Alcandre (a role once done in New York by Rocco Sisto).

Initially, Wilson entertained the notion of basing Vera on a real-life radical, but opted not to. "I thought about that and decided against it. I was in college when the blacklisting was going on, and, being fairly political, I was properly incensed. Now I've even learned to understand Elia Kazan, and his position. He was such an artist."

That line leads to an appreciative riff on the Kazan film "Baby Doll," with which she recently caught up. It came to market in 1956 all hot and bothered, with steam overcoming its comedy, but the temperature has dropped in time to reveal a kind of classic to her. No longer just about a thumb-sucking, virginal child-bride, "it's stylized in a way that's just great."

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.