Since her Broadway debut with a Tony-Award winning performance in “The Great White Hope” in 1968, Jane Alexander has played a huge variety of roles on stage, in film, and on television. Among them are an inordinate number of roles based on the lives of real people. She appeared as Eleanor Roosevelt in two television productions, “Eleanor and Franklin” and “Eleanor and Franklin: the White House Years:” for each she was nominated for an Emmy. If that’s not enough Roosevelt, she also played FDR’s mother, Sarah, in the HBO special “Warm Springs.” In the television play “The Musicians of Auschwitz,” she portrayed Alma Rose, the actual leader of a musical group of prisoners. For each of those, she won an Emmy. And in totally different biographical modes, she played the Wild West’s Calamity Jane and the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
As we talked by phone about her latest biographical character, D.H. Lawrence’s lover and later wife, Frieda Weekley, which she is performing in the new play “A Moon to Dance By,” now in previews and opening on Friday, November 20, at George Street Playhouse, she laughs and claims she’s gotten quite an education researching these roles. “It’s one of the joys of playing historical characters.” She remembers that at one point while working on the Eleanor performances, she told Joseph Lash, who wrote two biographies about Eleanor, “I honestly think I should have a PhD in Roosevelt history. And he said, ‘I think so, too.’” Again, when she prepared Calamity Jane, she says, “I learned so much about the American West; it was so much fun to research.”
For this new play, Alexander is immersed in D.H. Lawrence’s work. Her character, Frieda, was Lawrence’s inspiration. “She is Ursula in ‘Women in Love,’ says Alexander. “She is ‘Lady Chatterley.’” There wasn’t as much raw data about the woman Frieda, however. “The world really doesn’t know her that well. There are a few photos and some letters — nothing extensive. But we do know she was larger than life. Even when you read early letters from her parents, they talk about how bold and impudent she was.”
Frieda had been married for 12 years and had three children, whom she abandoned to run away with Lawrence. “I can’t imagine what a heady experience it was, even for a wild spirit, to be Lawrence’s muse. I think she sensed that he was a breakthrough writer — which, of course, he was. In the late ’20s nobody was writing like D.H. Lawrence.”
It’s hard to understand how she would just leave her children and take off, but Alexander says, “She always thought that they would be in her life. She couldn’t imagine that her husband would keep them from her. The only time she could see them was in a lawyer’s office in London. That was enormously painful for her, and she suffered terribly not seeing children. It was very cruel of her husband, but understandable.”
The play, “A Moon to Dance By,” is set later in Frieda’s life. Lawrence is dead and Frieda and her 15-years-younger-than-she Italian lover are living in Taos, New Mexico. Alexander says the playwright, Thom Thomas, a D.H. Lawrence fan, discovered a “curious date” — he learned that Frieda’s now-grown son visited her in Taos. Coming all the way from England, he stayed only four days. “We don’t know what happened while he was there. But we do have letters before and afterward. So there apparently was some kind of rapprochement. We know that she did see her grandchildren after she returned to England.”
From this bit of information, Thomas has imagined those four days and transformed them into the play. “It’s really a play about mothers and sons,” says Alexander. Something she can certainly relate to as she is the mother of a son, Jace Alexander, now a television director.
She says she finds the play very relevant to today’s women, especially in light of the high separation and divorce statistics in this country. “The play’s about women finding their own voice and path in the world.”
Alexander decided early in her life that theater was the path for her. She remembers her father, an orthopedic surgeon, who had just returned from the war, taking her to see a ballet. “I was just overwhelmed; it was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever seen. From then on I knew I had to be on stage. First it was ballet but that didn’t work out. So I figured I’d be an actress.” She appeared in school plays, summer stock, and community theater. While attending the Beaver Country Day School (a progressive school in Brookline, Massachusetts,) she remembers seeing her first play when she and her classmates were taken to see the Old Vic production of “Romeo and Juliet” in Boston. “I remember clearly being blown away by Claire Bloom as Juliet and saying, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” So she’s quite understanding that her granddaughter, Isabelle Moon Alexander, who is just 10, has decided she will join the “family business” as an actress.
Isabelle appeared in an episode of the television production “Royal Pains” directed by her dad, Jace Alexander, and in the Sam Mendes-directed movie “Away We Go.” Currently she is doing a workshop for an upcoming Broadway musical. There is definitely a lot of grandmother’s pride in Alexander’s voice as she says, “She is very self motivated, as I was, and her dad, too. And she’s very good.” Fortunately, Alexander and her husband, Edwin Sherin — who is directing “A Moon to Dance By” (as he also did for its premiere at the Pittsburg Playhouse, the playwright’s hometown, where he served as artistic director from 1966 to 1972) — live next door to to Isabelle’s family on Long Island and can enjoy watching her develop as another theater professional.
When Alexander was young both her parents were supportive but being in the medical field (her mother was a nurse) they insisted that she go to college. She studied theater at Sarah Lawrence College and spent her junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, concentrating on theater. Her breakthrough performance in “The Great White Hope” began at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, in 1967, where she starred opposite James Earl Jones, directed by Sherin. This was the first regional theater production to transfer to Broadway with its original cast intact. Sherin was at that time resident director of Arena Stage, where he and Alexander did 15 plays together. They have worked together many times since then on Broadway and in regional theater. Sherin and Alexander’s relationship began as actress and director; somewhere along the way, they separated from their respective spouses and were married in 1975.
She finds it comfortable working with her husband. “Fortunately, we are respectful and admiring of each other’s work.” She feels that it definitely helps that they had first a solid work relationship for several years before they became romantically involved.
The script for “A Moon to Dance By” had been given to Sherin, who in turn gave it to his wife to read with the question, “Should I do this?” To which she said, “Definitely, yes.” As the project took off, she says, “No one said anything about me. Other actresses did readings of the play. Finally, Ed asked the playwright, ‘How do you feel about Jane?’ And he responded: ‘I’ve always wanted Jane. She has always been my number one choice, but you never said anything.’”
Perhaps the most startling “credit” for this actress is chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Clinton administration. I ask how that happened and she admits she isn’t even sure. But she terms herself “an NEA baby,” having worked in so many regional theaters, beginning with “The Great White Hope,” which was developed thanks to an NEA grant. “At that time, the NEA was under the gun since Congress felt that many of the grants they had made were egregiously wrong. It was felt that the NEA needed a spokesperson who was comfortable defending freedom of expression. That was not a problem for me. I feel that the first amendment is the bedrock or our democracy.”
She found the world of Washington politics a “totally different world.” In the academic and theater worlds, she had always felt that “people seek the truth or at least some modicum of honesty. That’s not true in politics. It seeks the middle ground, the compromise. I’m not saying all of the politicians are dishonest; clearly they’re not. But our government does seem to repeat history over and over. I don’t think they read enough. Thankfully, our current president reads.” And I add, “even goes to the theater.” She is encouraged by the recent boost to the NEA budget, which indicates that there is a better understanding of what the NEA is doing around the country. “It’s great for the people all over America.”
Alexander has appeared in 50 movies and has been nominated four times for an Oscar. According to the Broadway League’s Internet Data Base, she has appeared in 13 Broadway plays. Since winning the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for “The Great White Hope,” she has been nominated six more times. Her roles have ranged from Gertrude in “Hamlet” (1975-’76, with Sam Waterston in the title role,) to Annie Sullivan in “Monday After the Miracle,” William Gibson’s less-than-successful follow up to “The Miracle Worker” (16 performances in 1982) to the wild Maxine in the 1988 revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” to the eldest of “The Sisters Rosensweig (1993-’94.)
Let’s hope that “A Moon to Dance By” will make that lucky 14 on Broadway. That’s the plan.
"A Moon to Dance By," George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, November 18 and 19, 8 p.m.; opening night is Friday, November 20, 8 p.m. Jane Alexander, Robert Cuccioli, and Gareth Saxe in Thom Thomas’ drama about Frieda Weekley, the widow of D.H. Lawrence. Through Sunday, December 13. $28 to $78. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.