THE first thing you notice about Colleen Dewhurst besides the familiar dazzling smile and rich velvet tones that roll over you like liquid smoke, is her wonderful sense of humor.
The winner of two Tony Awards and three Emmy Awards was comfortably ensconced on the couch in her dressing room at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre before an evening performance of A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" in which she is co-starring with veteran Broadway actor George Hearn.
Lighting one of many cigarettes, she laughs huskily. "I love 'Love Letters," she says. "Touring with the show -- San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Boston, Baltimore -- is like the old trouping days."
Gurney's two-character play has had a succession stars since it opened in New York in 1989. The work chronicles a lifetime relationship between a man and a woman from second grade to middle age solely through their correspondence.
"I think it is amazing what we are doing," says Dewhurst. "We sit at a table and read from scripts. There is no action, scenery or special effects. At first I was skeptical. My initial reaction was 'Whoa, is this really it?' I couldn't believe the positive audience reaction to the play the first time I did it.
"Here we are chained -- reading each letter. We can't memorize them. That would spoil it. But if we are thinking and feeling, the audience gets it. This play is what it is all about. . . . It's life."
In Gurney's work, Dewhurst portrays a rebellious artistic upper-middle class WASP, which contrasts with Hearn's very successful but rather priggish political figure.
"There are laughs and then 'Wham!'," says Dewhurst. "The laughs and the tragedy come out of the human condition not gag lines. It is sad. The two have everything to give each other. She takes risks but he is afraid."
Lighting another cigarette, she smiles. "Live theater is the most dangerous medium for an actor. You go out on stage naked . . . nothing to cover you up. The audience will let you know fast if you're off the track. It is a one-on-one experience you can't get anywhere else."
One of the major actresses in American theater, Dewhurst, 64, has won acclaim for her depictions of Eugene O'Neill heroines and Shakespearean tragedians. Her many films include "Annie Hall," "A Fine Madness," "Tribute," and "Ice Castles."
She plays a feature role in the soon-to-be-released film, "Dying Young," starring her son Campbell Scott.
Dewhurst has portrayed a series of serious contemporary roles on television. Last year she garnered Cable's Ace Award for her interpretation of a hard-working farm woman who befriends a young girl in the heartwarming TV series, "Anne of Green Gables."
But the actress is probably best known to TV viewers for her comedic talents as the feisty, strong-minded mother of Candice Bergen in the Monday night sitcom, "Murphy Brown." Her characterization of Avery Brown won her an Emmy Award last year as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
"I was approached warily for the part," she laughs. "The producers said they would like me to read their reviews. I said, 'This house has already reviewed that show, and I'll take the part.' They were surprised. I went out to Los Angeles without ever seeing a script.
She smiles. "The fact that I can do comedy came as a shock to lot of people. 'You were really funny,' they say. People always expect me to be heavy but few know that after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, I spent the next 10 years doing comedies in summer stock."
Of Scotch-Irish roots, Dewhurst moved to America from Montreal with her family when she was 6 years old. "I attended Milwaukee Downer for Young Ladies," she says, "and then decided I wanted to be an actress and took off for New York."
The big break came with Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park troupe. "The first production was 'The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus' in which I played the Queen of the Gods who killed everybody in sight."
She shudders and laughs. "She eats her own sons in a pie. Thank God, I did not have my boys then. From then on I was typed as a heavy. 'Heavy, heavy, hangs the sword over my head'," she quotes with a sudden burst of deep-throated laughter.
Dewhurst has two sons by her first marriage to actor George C. Scott (they wed and divorced twice): Campbell, who has already established himself as a stage actor and new movie actor with the film "Longtime Companion," and Alex, a stage technician and playwright.
"They know this is a tough business," she says. "You are up one day and strike out the next. They have seen me strike out and their father go down. There are no stars in theater. It is a democratic process. Everyone is important. From the stagehand to the dresser, the actor's life depends on them."
"Love Letters," starring Collen Dewhurst and George Hearn, continues at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre through May 26. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday matinees are at 2 p.m., Sunday matinees are at 3 p.m.