Blythe Danner feels right at home on stage in the Berkshire hills.
After a 12-year absence, the actress is returning to the Williamstown Theatre Festival that shaped her early career nearly 40 years ago and where she continued to return over the decades. She is starring in a new play, Lucy Boyle's "The Blue Deep" that begins performances Wednesday and continues through July 8.
"It's a major event to have Blythe Danner here," says Jenney Gersten, producing director for the summer theater festival at Williams College in the northwest corner of Massachusetts.
At 69, Danner is a matriarchal beauty with a slightly smoky voice, gracious good manners and Main Line poise reflective if her Philadelphia roots. That well-bred sometimes echoes in roles on TV, stage and screen, including Eric McCormack's mother in NBC's "Will & Grace,' Hank Azaria's canny and irreverent mom in Showtime's "Huff" and Robert De Niro's WASP-y wife in the series of comedy films around the family of Fockers.
But on stage her career has run an even wider gamut, "from whores to nuns" in her early years with the Boston Theatre Company, from light comedy to musicals to Tennessee Williams on Broadway, and Chekhov, Inge and now a new playwright at Williamstown.
"It's been a little overwhelming being back here," she says during a break from rehearsals. "There are certain days when I've had to choke back the old whatevers."
Danner's association with the summer theater festival began in 1974 when she played Nina to Frank Langella's Trepleff in a memorable production of Chekhov's "The Seagull." (which was also filmed for TV's "Theater in America" series). The following year she once again starred opposite Langella in Jean Anouilh's romantic comedy "Ring Round the Moon," which also featured Mildred Dunnock.
"In that production I was pregnant with [son] Jake," she says. "They had my costume full of ruffles to disguise the fact that I was pregnant. I remember [critic] John Simon writing how I wasn't so lithe as I once was."
When Danner arrived in the Berkshires in the mid-'70s, Danner was a young, beautiful rising star, having already earned a Tony Award in 1970 for her performance in the comedy "Butterflies Are Free." She had begun her film and television career as well, starring as a series of charismatic women: in Sidney Lumet's "Lovin' Molly" (opposite Beau Bridges and Anthony Perkins), as Martha Jefferson in the film version of "1776" opposite Ken Howard, as Zelda Fitzgerald opposite Richard Chamberlain in the TV movie, "F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Last of the Belles," and in the short-lived TV series "Adam's Rib," again opposite Howard.
Peter Hunt, who directed the series, was a festival regular and connected Danner to the theater's dynamic artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos.
"Nikos was very vivid," she says. "He made me take the role of Nina. I didn't think I had the gravitas to do [Chekhov]. I had been on Broadway in 'Butterflies Are Free' which was much lighter fare. But he insisted that I do it. He had seen me in a film I had just done ['Lovin' Molly']. Five minutes into the film, he said…" — and here Danner took on a brusque Greek accent of Psacharopoulos — "…'She can cry, OK.' And that's how I got here."
"He was such a great teacher. He would say, 'Don't just cry. You have to go deeper. Deeper than tears. I admired him so and he was wonderful to me. He was so passionate. I remember he and Olympia Dukakis would be going at it passionately in Greek over some issue in Chekhov."
Danner says even though she already had some sizable credits on film and stage she was intimidated by the Wiliamstown company who would later become her friends and extended family: Among those at the festival in those early years were Long Wharf Theatre's Arvin Brown and Joyce Ebert, as well as Austin Pendleton, Lee Grant, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Raul Julia, Marian Mercer, Kevin McCathy, Carrie Nye, Louis Zorich, Joseph Mahar, Christopher Walken and Howard.
"I wanted more," she says of the Williamstown experience. "I put my toe in the water and thought, 'This is for me.' "
Danner began to feel empowered to tackle more substantial roles and was often cast in parts that explored "the depth of darkness," including a televised version of Tennessee Williams' "Eccentricities of a Nightingale," again opposite Frank Langella. Over the years she worked steadily on stage, film and television in a wide variety of roles.
Does she think its more difficult starting out now for an actor?
"It's harder now," she says. "When I began there were so many repertory companies and you could play great roles from week to week or month to month to. It was a much easier way to get your training back them. Sadly, many kids just want to be in a hit series or a movie."
Over the years Danner's returned to the festival, for "Children of the Sun," "Picnic," another role in "The Seagull" and "The Chekhov Cycle" in 2002. Her busy schedule with other projects has kept her from returning to the festival sooner.
In "The Blue Deep" she plays Grace, the mother of Lila "who returns to her family's exquisite Hampton home with only a plastic bag and a broken heart…The same painful history that threatens to drive mother and daughter permanently apart ultimately evolves into the one realm where reconnection might be possible."
Also featured in the cast are Becky Ann Miller (TV's "Freaks and Geeks"), Heather Lind (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") and Finn Wittrock (Broadway's recent revival of "Death of a Salesman.") Bob Balaban, an old friend and colleague of Danner, directs the script by Boyle, daughter of the late actor Peter Boyle.
"The play knocked my socks off when I read it and I called Lucy up immediately," says Danner. "My character, Grace, has just lost her husband and he was the heart of the family and a peacemaker. They're both really kind of lost and they're struggling to find their footing. She's very hard on her daughter and the daughter is very hard on Grace. It's painful but it's also funny and it's a real journey."
Were there things in the play that related to her as well? Danner's husband, producer-director Bruce Paltrow (TV's "St. Elsewhere") died of cancer in 2002. Her daughter is Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shakespeare in Love") who often spent her summers growing up — and sometimes performing — at Williamstown.
"It's not unusual to explore this territory and have some spill-over," says Danner. "But not to the extent that it is in this play. But mother-daughter relationships can be hard and in our case my husband was indeed the heart of our family. My daughter and I have a very special relationship."
Are there any mother-daughter acting projects in the future?
"I never project or predict projects for Gwyneth," she says. "We just sort of play it by ear and whatever happens is wonderful. I think she'd like to return to the stage but her life is very full. She is a great mom and she has this extraordinarily successful website, Goop, and her cookbooks gives her great joy during these very nourishing years. She is a great talent and I hope she would get back to the stage."
Danner admits to being wooed to return to Williamstown to do Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" but says a performance she saw in London 2001 starring Vanessa Redgrave and brother Corin Redgrave gave her pause. "After seeing that production I don't know if I even want to touch it because what they all did was so extraordinary."
THE BLUE DEEP plays Wednesday, June 27 through July 8 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage, on the Williams College campus, 1000 Main St. in Williamstown, Mass. Information: http://www.wtfestival.org and 413-597-3400
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