One strong actress, Marian Seldes moves front and center in Albee play Power plays: Many supporting roles prepared her for starring in 'Three Tall Women.'

February 25, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Her 50 years in the theater have brought Marian Seldes lots of choice roles in lots of long-running shows, but few have transported her to the heights of her star turn in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women."

"I've been, for want of a better phrase, a supporting actress so much of my life. The opportunity to, in a sense, be the play -- the character without which there is no play -- is so fulfilling for me that I cannot express it," the actress says of her role in the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It begins a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday. "I feel every night, I can't wait to do it."

Seldes -- who won a Tony Award for her supporting role in Albee's "A Delicate Balance" in 1967 -- was inducted last month into New York's Theatre Hall of Fame. The Los Angeles engagement of "Three Tall Women" kept her from attending the ceremony, but her co-star, Michael Learned, stopped the curtain call the night before to read a message from Albee: "Dearest Marian, I am glad that the Theatre Hall of Fame has finally realized what many of us have known for a long time that you are immortal."

In "Three Tall Women," Seldes plays a domineering 92-year-old dowager, identified only as "A" and based on the playwright's adoptive mother. The other two women are A's 52-year-old caretaker (B) and a young lawyer (C), who is attempting to put A's affairs in order. After intermission, Albee's seemingly naturalistic drama takes a brilliant turn in which an unexpected connection between the three women gradually becomes apparent.

A striking woman who speaks in warm, theatrical tones punctuated with "my dear's" and "darling's," Seldes, 67, expressed her enthusiasm for A over a leisurely lunch -- shared with her husband of five and a half years, writer Garson Kanin -- during the play's Washington run.

In a sense -- as she is the first to admit -- her devotion to A sounds a bit disingenuous. Originally, she acknowledges, she was interested only in B, the character she portrayed in the play's 1992 American debut in Woodstock, N.Y., and subsequently off-Broadway, before taking over the role of A in August. Now, Seldes says, "I feel like a cheating lover because I really am obsessed with A."

Over the years, Seldes has made somewhat of a practice of switching roles, beginning with her 1947 Broadway debut in "Medea," in which she first played a non-speaking attendant and subsequently played each member of the three-woman chorus. Her most notable instance of role-switching came in the Broadway production of "Equus," in which she played the magistrate before taking over the role of the mother.

Referring to her initial reluctance to play A in "Three Tall Women," Seldes says, "Looking back, I wonder what was going on in my mind. Here is the greatest part I've ever played, and I was finding a way not to play it. It's the luckiest thing that ever happened to me -- to play both."

Rich, arrogant and anti-Semitic, the character of A is, in Seldes' -- words, a "gorgon" -- a term she insists is not derogatory. "I love her. I absolutely understand her," she says.

One reason for that understanding may be that she has known numerous strong women whose influence she recognizes in her portrayal. These include legendary actresses Judith Anderson (in whose "Medea" Seldes made her Broadway debut), Katharine Cornell (godmother of Seldes' only child, Katharine Andres), and Tallulah Bankhead.

Seldes appeared with Bankhead in Tennessee Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," which turned out to be Bankhead's last play. The play came to Baltimore in 1963 on a pre-Broadway tour -- the last time Seldes played here before "Three Tall Women."

"Milk Train's" Baltimore engagement coincided with the Christmas holidays, Seldes recalls, and she planned to spend all of her spare time with her daughter, who was on vacation from school. Bankhead had trouble understanding this, says Seldes, who describes the late actress as a "phenomenon" -- a term that also applies to the character of A. "There's almost this terrifying energy, and that's what Tallulah had," she explains. "That made an enormous impression on me."

She also had role models for A closer to home. She remembers her maternal grandmother, Mary Brown Hall, telling her: "You know who I think is the most unforgettable character I ever met? Your father, Gilbert Seldes -- a Jew, certainly." Her grandmother's gesture of disapproval -- running her tongue on the outside of her teeth, with her lips closed -- has even worked its way into her depiction of A.

On stage, in addition to these strong women, Seldes also feels the influence of the male directors, actors and writers who have nurtured and guided her career, including John Gielgud; her teacher, Sanford Meisner; and her current husband, Garson Kanin. "I think they gave me faith," she says.

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