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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Elizabeth Wilson’s Half Century of Stage & Screen
What can you say about an actor who got heartily booed
taking her curtain calls? Only one of two possibilities could cause
such a reaction. Either the actor was unmistakably dreadful, or so
awesomely brilliant in an unsympathetic role that it aroused strong
feelings in the audience.
For Elizabeth Wilson, it was most emphatically the latter when she
won the 1972 Tony award for best supporting actress in David Rabe’s
controversial Tony Award-winner for best play, "Sticks and Bones."
In it, Wilson played a mother in denial about the Vietnam War who
refused to either confront or recognize the condition of her blinded
son. Divided audiences who experienced this production still argue
Fans of the film version of "The Addams Family," however,
don’t argue about Wilson’s comical performance as Fester’s wicked
mother, while fans of the classic boomer comedy "The Graduate"
continue to hold Wilson close to their hearts for her performance
as Dustin Hoffman’s mother. But ask theatergoers about Wilson and
they will speak of the many roles she has memorably created on the
Broadway stage, including "Mornings at Seven," "You Can’t
Take It With You," "Waiting in the Wings," "Ah, Wilderness,"
and the award-winning revival of Edward Albee’s "A Delicate Balance."
It all began with Wilson’s professional debut in 1953 in William Inge’s
"Picnic," in which she had a few lines as a schoolteacher,
a role she played again in the 1955 film version.
Is there a better way to celebrate the start of your
second 50 years as an actor than by appearing in a play — or rather
two plays? Upon hearing that question Wilson responds, during our
phone chat, with "If that number is right, I think I better just
go back to bed."
Opening on Friday, January 17, at George Street Playhouse, and continuing
to February 9, under the umbrella title "Double Play," Wilson
stars in "The 75th" by Israel Horovitz, and "The Vibrator,"
a world premiere by Arthur Laurents. "Double Play" boasts
a set design by Michael Anania, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, and
lighting design by Joe Saint.
"To do two one act plays at my age is like playing Lady Macbeth
three times a day," says Wilson. "We have worked hard to impress
Laurents who has been at rehearsals for the past few days."
For this veteran character actor, it is not the 50 years she has been
appearing regularly on the stage, screen and TV that counts at the
moment, but more relevantly it is appearing in a play about a 75th
high school reunion. In it, Wilson plays Amy, one of two last surviving
members of her class. Apparently, neither she nor the other reunion
attendee, played by another Tony Award-winner, Tom Aldredge, can recall
ever having met.
It is the reunion with Aldredge that makes appearing in "The 75th"
extra special for Wilson. Both Wilson and Aldredge appeared together
to great acclaim in "Sticks and Bones." It was about eight
years after "Sticks and Bones" had moved from Joseph Papp’s
Public Theater to Broadway, she remembers, that Papp had her and Aldredge
return to the Public to appear together again in the world premiere
of "The 75th."
"Tom and I have worked together on `The 75th’ and we wouldn’t
consider doing it without each other," says Wilson. Not quite
a constant team, Wilson and Aldredge were also paired as a couple
in the made-for-TV film, "In the Best of Families."
So now, almost 25 years later, under the direction of David Saint,
Wilson and Aldredge are reprising their roles. Saint, who directed
Wilson in the national tour of A.R. Gurney’s "The Cocktail Hour,"
("I’ve done lots of Gurney and am considered a good Gurney lady
even though I come from Grand Rapids, Michigan") was instrumental
in reuniting Wilson and Aldredge.
Comprising the second act of "Double Bill" is the world premiere
of "The Vibrator" by Arthur Laurents, a romantic comedy about
love later in life in which Wilson and Aldredge play a New Jersey
couple in their 70s who move into a gated Florida community. While
Harvey enjoys the temperate climate ("it’s perfect for year-round
gardening"), his wife Phoebe deems her new surroundings "Death
row with humidity."
"Laurents wrote this play for us," Wilson proudly asserts,
"and in about a year, Laurents says he will have finished two
new companion pieces for `The Vibrator,’ which we will also do."
About her "Vibrator" character Wilson says, "Phoebe is
about 70, feisty, active in Planned Parenthood and social activities
but nevertheless unhappy living in Florida in the heat and where most
people, including her husband, have just given up.
"Oh boy," she continues, "is the other role different."
Her character Amy in "The 75th," despite being a gifted Smith
College graduate, appears at her 75th high school reunion as a 93-year-old
"I feel fortunate to be still working in the theater, film and
TV, after so many of my contemporaries are gone," says Wilson,
who easily recalls how she got her first professional job. "Helen
Hayes, who was on the board of the Neighborhood Playhouse, wrote a
letter of recommendation for me in my final year. I can remember every
word in the letter," she submits, then proves her point by quoting
its last line: "Anyone who would help Elizabeth Wilson would be
proud to boast of it one day."
Wilson says she proceeded to hand out the letter to various producers.
But it was Hayes who arranged for Wilson to meet Joshua Logan, the
Princeton alumnus and director of "Picnic." This was the play
that also introduced Wilson to Paul Newman.
"We became good friends," she says. "He was the most gorgeous
thing. I remember his blue eyes. They were so blue I had to look away.
Everyone was crazy about him. But he saved those eyes for Joanne Woodward
who was an understudy," she wistfully recalls.
Wilson’s stage work also includes such successes as Gurney’s "Ancestral
Voices" at Lincoln Center, "Solonika," in which she and
Jessica Tandy talked and watched a nude Maxwell Caulfield on the sand,
and Mike Nichols’ production of "Uncle Vanya" with George
C. Scott and Julie Christie. Yet Wilson talks even more enthusiastically
about the four films she appeared in for Nichols which she says she
is especially proud. In addition to "The Graduate," they include
"Catch 22," "Day of the Dolphin," "Regarding Henry,"
and "Nine to Five." In the latter she played the office snitch,
Roz, opposite Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda.
Recognized as one of our best character actors (that
is an actor who can change personas like a chameleon and is not dependent
on type or personality in creating a supporting role), Wilson says,
"I started out as a character actor because I knew I was too tall
to be cast with the short leading men. I was 5-foot-10 but I’m heading
Wilson says she decided to become an actor when she was just eight
years old. "Well, to be brief, I came from a very strange family.
My escape was to go off by myself, read, and tell myself stories.
I did that for years, until my mother picked up on that and found
a drama teacher for me in Grand Rapids."
After a successful audition for Virginia’s Barter Theater, Wilson
was working with such already recognized young talents as Patricia
Neal, Ernest Borgnine, and "Greg" Peck. Wilson’s next stop
was the Neighborhood Playhouse where, upon winning a scholarship,
she studied with the legendary Sanford Meisner.
Wilson says she becomes every day more aware of the loss of her contemporaries,
particularly those she played opposite in "You Can’t Take It With
You," such as Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, and George Rose.
She also shares a spicy anecdote about the time she appeared with
Judy Garland in "A Child is Waiting." Admitting there was
some truth to the story that Garland worked four days and had to take
four days off, Wilson nevertheless remembers Garland not only as "a
darling — she picked me up and drove me to work," but being
Garland’s co-star Burt Lancaster was unfortunately going through a
bad time and was noticeably bored by delays. Not one to mince words,
Wilson vividly described Lancaster as "a shit." "We’d
be starting a take and he would invariably say something very rude.
As we walked away from him one day after a shoot, Judy had had enough
and let out a resounding [expletive deleted]."
When I admit that I had missed seeing her most recent appearance in
the TV mini-series "Scarlett," Wilson says, "You didn’t
miss anything special." If that’s the case, then it would one
of the very rare times when missing a Wilson performance is not to
be regretted. And I still regret not having seen her in Hugh Wheeler’s
lauded but short-lived 1961 play "Big Fish, Little Fish" that
also starred Jason Robards, Hume Cronyn, George Grizzard, and Martin
Gabel, under John Gielgud’s direction. "Now that was something
special not to be missed," she adds with a sigh.
After speaking with the always very special Ms. Wilson, I am ready
to go on record with the prediction that the strongest audience reaction
to her performance in "Double Play" at George Street Playhouse
will be love and laughter.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the comedy
double bill starring Elizabeth Wilson and Tom Aldredge. Show runs
to February 9. $26 to $50. Friday, January 17, 8 p.m.
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