Mrs. G takes on D.C.


Just as Edna Garrett used to dispense advice as the housemother in the long-running NBC TV series The Facts of Life, Charlotte Rae, the actress who played Mrs. Garrett, tries to offer guidance to her Washington cab driver.

The driver is lost. After making several references to traffic circles and Connecticut Avenue, Rae finally says: "Now we're getting there." Then, with her destination in sight, she decides she's close enough and asks the driver to simply let her out.

Rae is in Washington appearing in the East Coast premiere of Leading Ladies, a new comedy at Ford's Theatre by D.C. lawyer-turned-playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor).

It's been almost a half-century since the 79-year-old actress last performed in the nation's capitol. Back then, she created the role of Mammy Yokum in a pre-Broadway engagement of the musical Lil' Abner.

Also back then, cell phones didn't exist, and the one that she's using is giving her more difficulties than the cab driver. Between disconnects, she explains that Florence Snider, the character she plays in Leading Ladies, is a little less maternal than Mrs. Garrett or Mammy Yokum.

"She's a crusty old thing," Rae says of Florence, a multimillionairess in 1940s York, Pa. "It's not a big part, but it's a crucial part," she says, explaining that Florence is searching for a pair of long lost relatives to whom she plans to leave the bulk of her fortune. The plot thickens when two Shakespearean actors decide to impersonate the missing heirs, only to find out that the relatives are nieces -- a discovery that leads them to don drag.

Rae is still best known as Mrs. Garrett, a role she played from 1979 to 1986 on Facts of Life and a season before that on Diff'rent Strokes. "It's amazing that people still remember me, and they all want me to give them a hug, so I give it to them," she says.

The actress also has extensive stage credits in everything from Pinter and Beckett to Shakespeare. After stepping out of the cab, she reminisces about some of her work in the theater. There was the time, for example, that she shared the stage with Larry Hagman. The year was 1962, and she and Hagman were on Broadway in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part.

The play starred Bert Lahr, and the theater, Rae explains, had "a second star dressing room. We decided we'd ask if we could share the dressing room, and the director said, `Even the Lunts [legendary husband-and-wife actors] had separate dressing rooms.'"

A few years later, Rae played Mistress Quickly in the New York Shakespeare Festival's Central Park production of both parts of Henry IV, with Sam Waterston as Prince Hal and Stacy Keach as Falstaff. Once, she recalls, they performed both parts in a single night. "It started like 6 o'clock in the evening, and it finished like 2 in the morning. There was the smell of pot in the air by that time. I realized if we could endure that, we could endure anything."

Rae chats a little more about Shakespeare, as well as one of her proudest accomplishments -- playing Mrs. Peachum opposite Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera off-Broadway in 1954 ("a remarkable experience"). "I always like to do serious plays," she acknowledges.

But she also feels that a comedy like Leading Ladies serves an important function. "It is so wonderful to hear people belly laugh and have such a good time because in this day and age there is so much tragedy around us," Rae says. "It gives me so much joy to hear everybody laughing. It's almost a spiritual experience."

"Leading Ladies" continues at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington, through Oct. 23. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $25-$52. Call 202-347-4833.

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