ACTRESS Elizabeth Van Dyke, who earlier this year portrayed a vengeful mother determined to kill the murderer of her 3-year-old son on "L.A. Law," says she is taking on an even greater creative challenge in the Center Stage production of "The Queen and the Rebels" by Ugo Betti.
Cast in the title role of the elusive Queen, Van Dyke describes her character as "the once-proud wife of the deposed dictator of a European country whose life was miraculously spared in a mass execution of the old regime's leaders.
"Hounded by zealous revolutionaries bent on a ruthless search for their hated enemy, she is now an ambiguous, shadowy figure whom legend has raised to heights of unrealistic importance," says Van Dyke before a rehearsal of the show.
Betti is one of Italy's greatest playwrights, and his philosophical yet stark commentary on war and the horrifying corruption of power, written in 1949, opens tonight for previews and continues through Dec. 1 in the Head Theater.
The actress was sipping coffee in a vacated board room of the theater. Outfitted in a soft velvet hat, flowered shirt and long skirt, she shyly answered questions and volunteered her own feelings about Betti's play.
"After five years of running and hiding, the woman is reduced to a huddled, pitiful mass wanting only survival and oblivion," Van Dyke says.
"The action takes place in a remote mountain village of the war-torn country. The Queen is desperate, terrified. She has had to come to terms with her guilt by association. Silence is support, and now she is paying for it."
Van Dyke compares her role as Queen somewhat with that of the mother of the young child who was fatally injured in a drive-by shooting on the "L.A. Law" episode. "It was all about the ineffectiveness of our so-called justice system," she says. "The mother was too afraid to speak out. Not speaking led to one of the killers being freed and the other given a minimal term.
"My character shoots the one who was allowed to go free, and I end up in jail."
Smiling, she says, "It was my first TV drama experience, and it was wonderful. The 'L.A.' cast and crew were so gracious and, unlike some other television series, very concerned with good acting technique."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the busy actress is now bi-coastal with residences in both L.A. and New York.
"I am just working up to leading roles now," says Van Dyke, who received an Audelco Award as Best Actress 1990 for the title role in the American Place Theatre's premiere of "Zora Neale Hurston," a play based on the life of the Harlem Renaissance writer.
She made her Broadway debut in "Checkmates" with Ruby Dee and played the title role of "Antigone" for the Lincoln Center Institute.
A favorite character was Molly in the Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Her one-woman show, "Love to All, Lorraine," in which she plays playwright Lorraine Hansberry, was produced for Group W Cable and received an ACE Award.
"A role must be dimensional to be fulfilling," says Van Dyke. "The role of the Queen is a beautiful, delicate character. Although there are political struggles in Betti's play, it is really about the discovery of inner power.
"The Queen loses her power while another woman finds surprising strength within herself. That is so true of many of us. We have the inner power but we don't know it . . . we don't use We should claim it."
Curtain times for "The Queen and the Rebels" are: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 1 p.m. Wednesday matinees; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets range from $10 to $30. "Pay What You Can" tickets will go on sale at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 22). For further information and reservations, call the Center Stage box office at 332-0033.