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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

its merits.

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

loser.

"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

for 5-9-1/2."

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

"very funny."

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

Double Play, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

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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