Vulnerability is a key to playing cold character


March 08, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Grandma Kurnitz comes across as a monster -- a stern, cane-wielding Teutonic tyrant who inspires fear in her children and terror in her grandchildren.

But she's not a monster to Mercedes McCambridge, who portrays her in Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," which begins a month-long run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday. "Ultimately," McCambridge claims, "Grandma is a hero of mine."

Of course, you say. After all, this is the actress who was the voice of the demon in the movie "The Exorcist."

Monsters 'R Her.

But that's not it at all, McCambridge protests. For starters, she refuses to label any of her characters "heavies." "People call them heavies. I don't believe I ever played a heavy -- Lucifer himself. He was the prince of heaven and blew it and ended up where he is. But I'll bet you anything that in the real dark night of the soul, where it's always 3 o'clock in the morning, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I'll bet you that Lucifer cries."

As to tough-spirited Grandma Kurnitz -- the pivotal character in this 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about two boys sent to live with their grandmother during World War II -- McCambridge explains, "My grandmother was like that; so was my mother. I feel that the people who pushed me the most, including the teachers, are the ones who made the greatest impression on me and loved me the most."

Unlike Irene Worth, who originated the role but admitted she neither liked nor admired the character, McCambridge -- who replaced Worth on Broadway -- admires Grandma's honesty and adherence to principle. And, she says, "I also know, in my experience, that the people who seem to be the coldest turn out to be the most vulnerable."

Speaking from the show's stop in Sarasota, Fla., McCambridge enumerates a "Who's Who"-sounding list of examples -- Orson Welles, James Dean, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and Billy Rose, all of whom figure into her 1981 autobiography, "The Quality of Mercy."

And then, reflecting further on the tendency to conceal vulnerability beneath a formidable exterior, the 73-year-old actress pauses and adds, "I do a great deal of it myself to protect myself. False protection."

She quotes a line of Grandma's she feels is key: "You want to hear what my truth is? . . . Everything hurts. Whatever it is you get good in life, you also lose something."

Although McCambridge prefers not to talk about it, she alludes to what she calls "a Euripides tragedy" in her life. In 1987, her son murdered his wife and two daughters and then committed suicide.

"Sometimes people have said to me, 'How can you live?' I can't live with it, but the thing is, I got up this morning, and today looks pretty good, and that's how I don't live with it because you can't live with it. Nobody can live with it, but you do," she says softly.

"I rely very heavily on what I read, and Marcus Aurelius is one of my favorites. He says that nothing outside myself could injure me without my permission. If that's true, I've done an awful lot of damage to myself, and to continue along that line, I'd have to be crazy."

McCambridge was in semi-retirement in La Jolla, Calif., when she decided to audition for Neil Simon. Most actresses would refuse to audition at her point in her career -- her credits include an Academy Award for "All the King's Men" and starring roles in the Broadway production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and the national tours of "Agnes of God" and " 'night, Mother." But she swallowed her pride and told herself, "Let's just see if you are big enough to walk into this room and meet this man you've never met and impress this man as if you were 16 years old." And with the enthusiasm of a teenager, she exclaims, "And I did! Only took about 15 minutes."

The truth is, McCambridge has rarely had to audition for anything. Instead, show business came to her. The Illinois native was an undergraduate at Mundelein College in Chicago when an NBC executive saw her perform and signed her to a five-year radio contract. In Chicago -- a hub of radio activity in those days -- and subsequently in New York, she played characters ranging from a little boy to the title role in "Abie's Irish Rose."

Even now, though she's hesitant to pick favorites, she admits she prefers radio to any other medium. In fact, her love of radio was what attracted her to "The Exorcist." "At the very base of it was the conviction that this is a radio performance in a film," she explains.

Still, due to her strict Catholic upbringing, she harbored some concerns about portraying the voice of the devil. She expressed these concerns to the late Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, founder of the drama department at Washington's Catholic University, where she had served as artist-in-residence. "He said, 'If you took on all the attributes of every character you played, you'd be an inmate, not an actress,' " she recalls.

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