The Liz Ashley

One of the most memorable moments from the opening night performance of Superior Donuts occurred prior to the actual show. I was at Angus having drinks with Steve, his partner Doug and Gil of Broadway Abridged, when on our way out we encountered upon the estimable Elizabeth Ashley. The actress was seated quite casually, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other and in a moment of pure nerve I decided to speak with her. Our conversation lasted five minutes, but it was one of most cordial, invigorating exchanges I have ever experienced with an actor.

A couple weeks ago, SarahB gifted me a copy of Ashley’s long out of print memoir Actress: Postcards from the Road, that she had found while out shopping in Texas. There were certain things I knew of Ashley – her Tony win and shoot to fame with Take Her She’s Mine, having Barefoot in the Park written specifically for her by Neil Simon and of her marriage to actor George Peppard. But – and this shouldn’t be as surprising as it was, but it is – there was a lot about the legend that I did not know. This book offered unusual candor in talking about the acting world of the 60s and 70s, and also regarding the struggles and challenges of being an artist of the theatre.

She doesn’t consider herself to be much of a writer, but with the help of Ross Firestone, she told her stories and he magnificently captures her voice in the text. The book is rather episodic and conversational – she establishes who she is and what she’s doing in her brief introduction. In the book she’s not going to separate her public and private persona and vows to be blunt:

“I know one thing for sure: You can tell an American the truth about anything and if you are really straight you are probably in for a terrific conversation. You may not get agreement, but you will almost certainly have a good, hot, rich exchange. Curiosity, compassion, and imagination are the most consistent spiritual characteristics I have found in the American psyche. This book is not an autobiography. It is about how I found my ticket to ride…”

She starts off with a breakdown during the run of Barefoot in the Park, where she felt she wasn’t good enough and sensed that everyone, especially co-star Robert Redford was aware of it. Highs and lows are traversed – the betrayal of her confidence by Sydney Pollack that cost her the lead in The Slender Thread, her volatile marriage to alcoholic Peppard, for which she gave up her acting career, the birth of their son, Christian, who really gave her the first real sense of identity she’d ever known. She left Peppard when alcohol started dictating violence and jealousy, culminating in an episode where she had to place a gun at the back of his skull to get Christian out of his drunken clutches.

She had given up on her career after turning down the film version of Barefoot in the Park and needed to work from the bottom up to get back into shape as both a performer and a professional. This involved one-shot appearances on minor television shows and appearances in movies of the week; anything to get her back into shape and so she could earn her stripes. In one episode of Mission: Impossible, she challenged herself to work as hard as possible on a climactic scene, and the director saw the effort she was making and why she was making it and it really clicked. Her comeback was fully realized in her highly acclaimed turn as Maggie the Cat in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opened in Stratford, Connecticut, moved to Broadway and became the hottest ticket in town.

However interesting her acting career, it is always the personal information that is the most fascinating; alternately amusing or harrowing. On the former path, she relays with considerable non chalance an affair with screenwriter Thomas McGuane. She and McGuane dallied for quite some time – with the full approval of McGuane’s wife who became one of Liz’s good friends. The three of them, taking sexual liberation by the horns and exercising their free love thought they had established the great sexual utopian experiment. Though she doesn’t mention her by name, merely a polite but terse “star-lette,” she mentions how Margot Kidder came along, snatched up McGuane ending his relationship with both his wife and Ashley.

The harrowing – and one of the most personal stories she relays was a recollection of her first pregnancy, with actor James Farentino (also her first husband) in the early sixties. She was about to go into Take Her, She’s Mine when she discovered she was unmarried and pregnant. She recounts with grim precision the abortion she had, up to and including her need for hospitalization afterward. It’s a devastating, chilling account of what things were like in our not so distant society. And she does not hold back.

Ashley takes is a no-nonsense, Southern gal: she suffers no fools but it brutally honest about herself and the events in her life. There is no glossing over her insecurities – from acting school, to the dismissal she received from her peers from the success of her first Broadway play (seen as commercial and not art). There is no stone which she leaves unturned in talking about her chosen profession, or the work she’s had to do and speaks of her successes and failures with considerable nonchalance.

She doesn’t delve very deeply into her childhood or her family life – just glimpses here and there of an impoverished upbringing, her lack of education, etc. The book is more a window into her life as a reflection of her career; all the more interesting since she wrote this in 1978. Her career has continued steadily, becoming one of the prime interpreters of her friend Tennessee Williams’ plays and taking Broadway by storm last year in Dividing the Estate and August: Osage County.

I had great respect for Ms. Ashley prior to reading her book, but now that respect has grown tenfold and I hope she might consider a follow-up. These last thirty years must have given this salt of the earth actress many more tales to tell. And I sure as hell would love to read about them.

Quote of the Day: Elizabeth Ashley

Elizabeth Ashley comments on playing opposite both Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad in August: Osage County in an interview with Theatremania:

“They are both great actresses, no doubt about it. Estelle was dangerous and brutal; she was like an assassin laying in wait and you always saw her intelligence. Phylicia is different; with her Violet, you see the vulnerability, the loving mother, and the fall from grace when she is clutched by her demons. You see the entire spectrum of the woman. I’ve always believed that with brilliant writing there is no right way to play any part — although there are wrong ways — and actors with creative imagination, which is the greatest gift we have, can find their own way to serve the text.”

On playing Violet Weston:

I might give it a shot someday, but having worked with Estelle and Phylicia, even I might be cowed by the assignment.

She’s Mean, She’s a Mess and Now She’s Phylicia

“Some people get antagonized by the truth.”

That is one of the many truth-bombs dropped at a fateful, disastrous dinner at the Weston house by matriarch Violet. You see, Violet is angry. She has cancer of the mouth, a volatile marriage, residual issues that stem from her problems with her mother, and a penchant for painkillers – any and all. Well the truth is, the play is still one of the most galvanizing theatrical experiences on Broadway, whose volatility remains unmatched by anything that has opened since.

August: Osage County, last year’s enormous Pulitzer and Tony-winning success is still playing at the Music Box Theatre and a new mama has joined the company. To put it mildly, she will cut you. Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad seemed an unlikely choice to fill shoes occupied by Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan and her stellar replacement Estelle Parsons. There were people who felt that there were too many racial undertones in the character for an actress of color to play the part. However, to those naysayers, I offer a polite “phooey.” (Spoiler alert pending in the next paragraph).

From the moment Rashad stumbles down the stairs in a drug-addled stupor and viciously turns on John Cullum, any and all preconceived ideas about her casting are erased from memory. (*Spoiler alert* For the first time, I thought “So this is why he killed himself” *End Spoiler*). This play does offer the character the opportunity to voice some politically incorrect comments about “Indians,” but color is innocuous here. Phylicia Rashad is once again playing an earth mother, but an earth mother who has experienced torment and disappointment in her life and is unafraid to express it or take out her rage on her family. Fact of the matter: the actress is nothing short of revelatory.

Rashad marks the fourth Violet I’ve seen. I took in Dunagan twice, her opening night and final performance; Parsons I saw twice and on one occasion earlier this year saw the capable understudy Susanne Marley, whose performance is molded on Dunagan’s. Each actress has brought something different to the part. Dunagan was selfish, clingy and ultimately childish under a bitingly caustic veneer. Parsons was stronger with a passive aggressive approach to her attacks, with a final breakdown of considerable pathos.

Now revitalizing the production at the Music Box (the understudy performance was strong, but not the special event the show is intended to be), is Rashad, also the first actor in the production to receive above the title billing. The last time I saw her onstage was in the 2008 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While enjoyable, her performance was more caricature than character and in that I found my worries regarding August.

Let it be said, there is nothing to fear here. Rashad’s Violet is angry, but she is also no nonsense, with eyes of frigid sobriety defying her lucid state of mind. Rashad brings great emotional wealth to the character in the first act, where I heard and understood lines for the first time. There are times when you might even feel sorry for her. Then you get to the climactic second act, where she proceeds to eviscerate everyone in sight. It is here that Violet’s rage comes to a boiling point. She may be loaded on her painkillers, but her character knows exactly what she’s doing. She is simultaneously taking out her aggression on those people readily available while masochistically setting herself up for a violent confrontation.

I was seated on the left center aisle for this entire scene and had a beautifully uncompromising view of Rashad’s face for the duration of the twenty minute scene. The actress spoke volumes with her steely eyes, and in her anger she was unpredictable and at times downright frightening. A sideways glance from her Violet is enough to wither anyone into cowering silence, with one notable exception. (More on her later). Hers is a performance to be reckoned with, and has brought a new invigorating dynamic to the cast, keeping the entire ensemble on their toes. You couldn’t ask for better theatre.

Elizabeth Ashley has put away her walker from Dividing the Estate and donned a gaudy wig to play Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae. Larger than life, Ashley’s Mattie Fae is closer in form to originator Rondi Reed’s characterization and is a vast improvement on previous replacement Molly Regan. She brings gauche earthiness and Southern sensibility to the part and as a result, Mattie is once again a colorful, crowd pleasing favorite. Though her performance is brushed with broader strokes than her predecessors, she still garners the audience’s sympathy in her grounded last scene.

John Cullum offers the best portrayal of Beverly Weston since the late Dennis Letts, with a folk-like whimsy undercut by resigned melancholy. Anne Berkowitz is Jean and is the most true to life teen I’ve seen in the role. Brian Kerwin is the only original cast member to stay with the production all the way through, playing Steve with the same combination of cockiness and sleaze.

Lots of original cast members have returned. Kimberley Guerrero is still playing Johnna, the Native American hired by Beverly to look after Violet and is a quiet source of comfort and solace for the family. Mariann Mayberry and Sally Murphy also returned as Violet’s two other daughters. Mayberry is still hilarious and devastating as the insecure youngest Karen, though she’s given up her bit with the olives. When she defiantly tells Barbara she’s going to Belize, it is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Murphy; however, needs to be reigned in. Her performance as Ivy has gone so wildly over the top that she switches between two levels: calm deadpan and incoherent high-pitched screeching. Whenever her emotions are vaulted, her voice jumps an octave and lines are lost. It’s glaringly inappropriate especially when juxtaposed with the more nuanced work of her scene partners.

Also returning to the cast is Amy Morton, whose titanic performance as eldest daughter Barbara, clearly her mother’s daughter is once again the emotional anchor of the piece. Finding herself in a failing marriage, handling her rebellious teen daughter while unsuccessfully trying to hold her family together, Morton is still giving the production’s most profound characterization. From her entrance to her exit, Morton is a fully-dimensional force of nature, ready to attack both her unfaithful husband and mother, but also herself. When Morton goes head to head with Rashad, it is as close to onstage fireworks as one is likely to find. (The only other onstage confrontation that comes close are the leading ladies of Mary Stuart). Her second act curtain line is still a shocking, earth shattering war cry that must be experienced live to be fully appreciated.

Morton’s is the sort of performance that comes along so rarely. So palpably honest, the line between acting and reality become forever blurred. Actors of the Golden Age rave about their memories of Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie; I offer Amy Morton in August: Osage County.

Rashad is contracted through August 23. Unfortunately, it looks as if she can’t extend due to her commitment to the London engagement of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this fall. First timers will be floored by the experience as the staging is still taut and high octane; repeat viewers (this was my sixth time seeing the play, remember) will be more than pleased at the shape the play is in. The cast still functions as an organic ensemble, with the relationships between the veterans and newcomer Rashad so functionally dysfunctional, you’d think she originated the part.

The play is still one of the most hilarious and one of the most gutwrenching dramatic experiences onstage in NY. Chances are I will most likely return a seventh time. Rashad and Morton are worth it.

Elizabeth Ashley Joins "August" Cast

Currently starring in LCT’s limited engagement of Dividing the Estate at the Booth, the Tony-winner will be packing her bags and heading across the street to the Music Box to play Mattie Fae Aiken in the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County starting February 3. I know when I saw Amy Morton’s last performance back in October I said I was done; however, Ashley’s presence is enough for me to consider making a fifth trip to see those pillars of dysfunction, the Weston family.

It’s opening night…!

As I embark on the beginning of what could be a delightful year-end glut of theatre, I will be venturing down to the Booth Theatre for the opening night of LCT’s production of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate. This will also mark the first time I’ll be seeing Elizabeth Ashley and Penny Fuller live in performance, which makes up a great deal of the excitement I’m feeling. It also marks my first opening since I was at the Vivian Beaumont last April for South Pacific.

Quote of the Day: Elizabeth Ashley

Stage legend Elizabeth Ashley, currently in previews at the Booth Theatre for the Broadway premiere of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, was interviewed by

In your memoir, you expressed ambivalence about your talent. Has that changed? Can you embrace the fact that you are an outstanding stage actress?

I think I’m good at my job. Because I look at it as labor. Life is a series of tasks, and ideally we find the tasks to which we are well suited. I understand what my task is on the stage. It’s not “look at me,” it is to serve the playwright and tell a story. I see myself as being part of something really ancient: Let me tell you my story, and if I do it well, maybe you’ll know a little more about being alive than you did before you heard my story. It seems to me that we are smugglers, and I’m a pretty good smuggler of ideas. I like that. But I am only at best a tool of the playwright. The ship is the playwright, the director is the captain of that ship and I am a damned good first mate.