SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Soft Drink (and Hard Truths) With Elizabeth Ashley

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21 Aug 2012

Ashley in The Best Man.
Photo by Joan Marcus

When she got to the dressing room, she found a message. "I think it was from Elaine Stritch to Angela, and it said, 'God bless longevity and short parts.'"

Elizabeth Ashley knew Gore Vidal — who died on July 31 — before she knew The Best Man, and she cherished his unguarded tongue. "Gore was one of my heroes, because he was one of the great, great heretics, and I believe heretics are as essential to civilization as air, food, water and shelter," she said. "Without heretics, you only have the status quo. So no truth ever gets spoken to Stupid, as the great Aaron Sorkin has said. Bad guys are always going to win, because that's the order, but you do have a moral obligation to put sugar in their gas tank every chance you get."

When Richards hired Ashley to play the same part in the same play that she did a dozen years ago, there was no danger that the actress would repeat herself. "I have no memory of what I did in 2000," she explained. And so this year's Sue-Ellen Gamadge is nothing like 2000's Sue-Ellen Gamadge. In fact, it's most likely better.

"This production is far and away the best production there's ever been of this play," said Ashley. "The problem of the play is it's a beast to structurally mount in terms of the visual. It's hard to make it visually interesting and clear where people are, and Michael Wilson is the only director who has ever solved that aspect of the play."

Ashley (right) with Hallie Foote in Dividing the Estate.
photo by Joan Marcus

Ashley has worked with Wilson many times, both at Hartford Stage, where Wilson was artistic director from 1998 to 2011, and in New York, where they worked together on Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate and now the Vidal play. The two met in the early 1990s, when Ashley was filming the television series "Evening Shade" and Wilson was an associate director at the Alley Theatre in Houston.

"I kept getting flowers from some kid I didn't know from the Alley who wanted me to do some play," she recalled. "The theatre breaks your heart over and over and over again, and I think I'd been through about my fifth heart in the theatre. I didn't want to hear about plays or the Alley at that time. But the flowers kept coming. And my assistant said, 'He's so nice and he's Southern.' I said, 'All right, I'll give him five minutes after taping.' He brought a bottle of tequila and we were there until four o'clock in the morning." She couldn't do the play Wilson wanted her to do, but she went to see his production of Angels in America. "My back belongs in the Smithsonian. It takes a lot for me to go to the theatre to sit in an uncomfortable chair, not knowing what I'm going to see, where you can't smoke or drink or anything civilized." But the effort was rewarded with a production that Ashley thinks is the best that Kushner's play has ever received, as well as a professional relationship that has yet to run its course.


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