Colleen Dewhurst; America's 'Mother Courage' now leaves them laughing

The voice is the voice of a lioness who has gargled with heavy cream: a deep, rich growl that reverberates even in a large theater at Kennedy Center. In a small room like this one, it has the effect of a sonic boom.

The voice belongs to Colleen Dewhurst, who sweeps on stage in regal purple velvet as the Grand Duchess Olga in ''You Can't Take It With You.'' Actually, Miss Dewhurst can take that velvety growl with her - most recently to Broadway with this Kaufman and Hart comedy.

She prowls barefoot around her apartment hotel room as she stalks a yellow pillow. Next, she circles the orange couch once or twice. Then she stretches out on it, like a cross between Ingres's reclining ''Lady Recamier'' and a lioness in the sun. The interview has begun. Her great auburn mane glows against the pillow in the late-afternoon light. Nearly two hours later the sky is navy blue with night as she finishes the interview, a rambling and entertaining monologue, punctuated with purrs, growls, whoops of laughter, and a few pensive silences. She is not so much answering the interviewer's occasional questions as improvising on them, doing a tour de force on life, acting, directing, and marriage. Colleen Dewhurst knows a lot about all of the above.

As one of the legendary actresses of the American theater, she is best known for her searing performances in some of the most difficult roles ever written: the wracked, tragic women of Eugene O'Neill's plays. She won one Tony Award for Best Actress in O'Neill's ''A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' an Obie for ''Desire Under the Elms,'' as well as starring in ''Mourning Becomes Electra'' and ''More Stately Mansions.'' (''All the Way Home,'' Tad Mosel's play based on James Agee's ''A Death in the Family,'' resulted in her first Tony Award.)

Colleen Dewhurst has not tap-danced her way through a career full of froth and laughs; her list of credits includes a heavy dose of Edward Albee, playing Martha in ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' and the poignant Amelia Evans in Albee's adaptation of Carson McCuller's ''The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,'' as well as some demanding roles for the New York Shakespeare Festival. She's also done TV productions of Arthur Miller's ''The Price'' and ''The Crucible.'' But suddenly here she is playing an exiled Russian duchess-turned-waitress in a revival of a zany family comedy from the '30s, and the laughs are coming thick as sour cream with blinis.

After a career studded with tragedies that leave the audience in shreds, Colleen Dewhurst enjoys leaving them laughing for a change. She says that she and her co-star Jason Robards Jr. ''are so used to doing heavies that the cast broke up the other night when I said, 'Gee, it's wonderful to be in a play where the audience smiles back at you when you take the curtain call.' '' But nobody in the cast of an O'Neill or Albee play ever held hands and danced and sang ''Good Night, Sweetheart'' to an audience that joins in. They do, though, in ''You Can't Take It With You,'' an inspired bit of nostalgia on the part of director Ellis Raab that sounds hokey but works.

Colleen Dewhurst rolls her cobalt-blue eyes at the mention of that curtain call. ''When Ellis first started it up, I can remember going, 'Oh, he's got to be kidding, first we dance,' '' she says incredulously, in a voice like a string snapping on a cello. '' 'Then we sing ''Good Night, Sweeeet Heart''?' I said 'Oh , this is dangerous, this is really dangerous.' '' She pauses, smiles. ''Of course, as time went on, we began to love the curtain call more than anything. It was such fun. . . .''

This production took a roundabout route to Broadway, beginning as a short revival at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. When Roger Stevens, impressario of Kennedy Center, had to fill a sudden gap in his theater schedule, he brought the comedy to Washington, where it was a hit. That resulted in taking it to Broadway, where it opened last month to reviews that are a producer's dream.

Frank Rich of the New York Times heaped warm praise on the production and noted ''. . . as an Act III dessert, we get Colleen Dewhurst, dripping in velvet and braying of 'blintzes,' as the Russian Grand Duchess who 'hasn't had a good meal since before the Revolution,' and now works as a waitress at Child's. It's a cameo role, but Miss Dewhurst, functioning as a cleanup hitter, knocks every laugh line clear out of the park.''

Miss Dewhurst says she's a little ill at ease over the star billing for a roughly six-minute appearance. But, as David Richards of the Washington Post wrote, ''Any production that saves such a consummate actress as Colleen Dewhurst for a cameo in the third act . . . has to be confident of itself.''

There is the same warm, family feeling off-stage among the actors, says Miss Dewhurst, that there is on stage. That is not always the case in the theater, she suggests darkly. When the play first opened years ago, the stage family, the Sycamores, a nest of endearing eccentrics, helped audiences laugh off the Great Depression of the '30s with their antics. Now in this revival, Miss Dewhurst suggests, the same thing may be happening:

''There's no doubt that there's a great need for . . . just this kind of humor. . . . It's without anger. There's not a killer image behind it. It's left up to you to figure why it breaks you up. There's no lecture in it. . . . It's very much the American way. And we are undoubtedly in another depression. . . .''

As she becomes suddenly very serious. There is a glimpse of the other Colleen: the fierce actress who looks like the Mother Courage of the American theater. Hers is a strong, arresting face with its high, wide cheekbones, deep-set blue eyes, and generous mouth. The Dewhurst sort of beauty is the kind you find on statues, not on ingenues. Time magazine, in a profile headed ''Gorgeous Gael,'' ran a story about the time she had to turn down a major part offered her by director Joseph Papp: He had heard about her, but they had never met, and he offered her the role of Juliet. ''Oh, Mr. Papp,'' she told him over the phone, ''You haven't seen me yet. I couldn't play Juliet when I was 12.''

She has run a rich gamut of roles: Queen Gertrude in ''Hamlet,'' Lady Macbeth , Mrs. Squeamish in ''The Country Wife,'' Josie Hogan in ''Moon for the Misbegotten,'' Kate in ''The Taming of the Shrew,'' Cleopatra, Medea, and Annie Hall's mother in the Woody Allen film. (Most of her film roles have been cameos.) Do any of those women resemble her? Out tumbles a long soliloquy on the art of acting:

''They were all parts of me that I sent to the front, and buried the rest. The women you like best are the ones that require more than cardboard cutout. You always read a play with such excitement, hoping it's going to be another O'Neill or 'Virginia Woolf.' Then, sometimes, you finish a play and say, 'Look, that's not bad, but there's something wrong.' And you know that to do the play your whole concentration will be in trying to make it flesh, but that it won't flesh out. It's just going to follow that you and I in the audience are going to be way ahead of the play. You're way ahead of the character,'' she says. Speaking of character:

''I think I like the women who bear constant investigation. But you can't ever assume you have investigated them completely, so that each night for you becomes in some way an excitement, as you suddenly discover there's a facet you haven't begun to (see) in that short period of rehearsal. And you can play something for months and suddenly come on, and go: 'This scene is wrong. It was always wrrrrong.' '' She wrings the word out like a washcloth.

On the importance of the right director: ''You don't have many good directors , I don't mind saying that.'' (She rates Jose Quintero and Wallis Hussein among the best.) ''The most exciting thing in your life is to run into a really good director. . . . If you're a professional at anything, you know you do what you do and stretch as far as you can. But there's always the feeling inside that there's another step there. . . . You're aided in that step by a director you trust. . . .

''The only way I can find out about a director is to listen to what he says to other actors. . . . If he's wrong and if he doesn't correct it, then I go oops! Then I just turn off . . . and begin what I call my 'little nod.' Whatever they say, I nod. And do what I want to do, because they really do not know how to tap any spring. . . . For me, that's the most tiring experience there is: to know that he's wrong, to know that when the curtain goes up, you'll be out there alone, that you're going to have to find out from the audience what [the role] is.''

But isn't the audience the last to know? No, she insists, it's the audience that cues the actors. ''I have never been able to analyze how they do it. They merge. The curtain can go up, and you can be out there five minutes on the first interview and go wrong. I'm wrong. And they're telling you. They unite like one person and begin direction. It is fascinating. I still haven't figured out how they do it. They don't know each other. They don't know the play. They don't know what you're going to do. But they manage to tell you that you're on the wrong foot. And as you begin to slide around, it's like . . . if you just leave yourself open enough, they will begin to'' - she clicks her fingers - ''and once you're on the right trail, then you're all right, nothing can stop you.''

She interrupts the soliloquy to answer a phone call from New York. After much laughter and banter, she offers the caller advice on a statement to the press about the funeral of a well-known celebrity with the temper of a trapped rhino. She judiciously suggests the phrase to use is ''he could be difficult at times'' and hangs up, grinning. Colleen Dewhurst then rolls up the sleeves of her sweater and reels off the whole conversation with relish, laughing even more the second time around. The sweater she is wearing is casually attractive but far from glamorous. It appears to be loosely knitted from tan twine, the kind you wrap packages in. With it she wears tan designer jeans, a silver locket, a clutch of silver rings on her fingers, and a silver and turquoise bracelet. A statuesque (5 feet, 8 inches) woman, who seems born for tiaras and long, sweeping trains, she has played her share of those roles.

But in real life, as on her South Salem, N.Y., farm, she prefers casual comfort. She looks around the apartment living room, its desk afloat in papers. ''I mean, we're not looking at the best housekeeper in South Salem!'' she growls. She is the mother of two grown sons, Alexander and Campbell, by her former husband, George C. Scott. They have grown up on that farm along with the brace of German shepherds, the cats, the birds, the ram, the horses, the goat, the mules, the peacocks, and the finch.

Speaking of the farm and menagerie, she says: ''I say what this is is publicity. This is known as PR. People love to come and take pictures of me with my hand on the goat, right? Standing next to the horse, under the apple tree, with a hoe in my hand. The minute they leave . . .'' (she switches pronouns) ''her hand goes off all those objects, and she's back on the couch with a book.'' She tells the story on herself with delight. Even off-stage, she is always ''on.''

She was born in Montreal, Canada, of Irish-Scotch-English stock. Her parents divorced when she was 12. Although the family had traveled extensively through the United States, she has some roots in Wisconsin, where she was a student at Milwaukee's Downer College. ''After I was 12, it was my mother and I alone,'' she says. ''She was a woman who was way before her time, . . . a woman of great humor, incredible intellect. People were drawn to her for many reasons. She had great compassion.'' Speaking of her girlhood, she says: ''Marriage was never a goal. I was never raised to get married,'' although she grew up at a time when it was de rigueur for every mother's daughter.

She did marry, though: the first time to actor James Vickery, who she met while they were both students at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Both her second and third marriages were to celebrated actor George C. Scott, who spurned an Oscar for the movie ''Patton.'' They've had two amiable divorces. To outsiders, here were two titans in the theater, with strong characters and volatile temperaments, and there has always been considerable curiosity about their tempestuous marriages. She knows.

''I used to say, 'George, we're always going to be asked in interviews about each other. . . . So the only way we can stop this is, when you're going to give an interview that's national, you say what a dreadful person I am, and I'll say what a (heel) you are, and then they won't ask us anymore.'

''Instead, we keep telling the world how wonderful the other person is. You say that I'm the greatest actress and a wonderful Mommy, and I say you're a wonderful Daddy and great actor. And people say 'Well, why aren't they back together again?' '' She lets loose what theater critic Walter Kerr once called her ''wolverine'' laugh.

She has a few more things to say about George Campbell Scott: ''He's a great intellect; George puts to bed once and for all the view of what an actor is, what you're going to expect. As I said to the boys: 'No matter what, my dears, you can be very grateful that's your Dad.' '' One of their sons, Alexander, worked as a stage manager at the Circle in the Square, where his father recently starred in Noel Coward's ''Present Laughter.'' The other, Campbell, is studying acting with Stella Adler.

Colleen Dewhurst admits, ''I like ladies who are survivors,'' and she's played a legion of them. But recently she's stretched herself beyond even all those demanding roles, tackling a different one: that of director. At Ken Marsolais's prompting, she took on the directing of ''Ned and Jack,'' a play about two friends, the great actor John Barrymore and Ned Sheldon, an influential producer on Broadway in the '20s. While it succeeded off-Broadway, it folded overnight on Broadway. In a voice that sounds marinated in vinegar and honey she says, ''We watched that ship go down in 30 minutes with all hands on deck'' when the reviews arrived.

''After that I said, 'No, I'm not interested in directing.' Before that I'd said, 'No, I'm too subjective to do it and too impatient.' But since then I've thought, 'Yes, I would do it again. . . .' ''

Along the way with ''Ned and Jack,'' she learned a couple of things. One is that directing is an exhausting role: ''You're always tired after a day of rehearsal, because you're using so many different areas of yourself. So that you always go home and fall right into bed. . . . You're thinking for several, instead of just for yourself, so you're even more tired.''

She also learned that the director who moves actors around like puppets and has the whole play planned in his mind before a single rehearsal is wrong-headed. ''He or she doesn't understand that if you hire an actor, one of the reasons you should have hired them is that, if they are truly talented, they should bringm you more than you have visualized. They should be able to bring you something. . . .'' Which is a fairly good definition of what Colleen Dewhurst does as an actress.

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