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Elaine Stritch has role of her life: Interview with Callaway is humorous and revealing

So New York has the interview show "Inside the Actor's Studio," hosted by James Lipton. Based on the packed, enraptured house that showed up at the Steppenwolf Theatre this weekend to spend 90 minutes or so with the indefatigable Elaine Stritch -- live, unplugged and yakking in intimate surroundings about her long life in show biz -- Chicago would surely support a similar endeavor. And the host John Callaway would probably be the best person for the job.

As an interviewer, Callaway is neither a smoothie nor a shrinking violet, but he's exceptionally well-prepared and, when necessary and occasionally when not, a tad belligerent. And he's a great deal less irritating than the endlessly bumptious Lipton. Sign the man up for a series.

Not every guest, though, would be as interesting, amusing and thoroughly invigorating as Stritch. In fact, it's a pretty good bet that none of them would be.

To call Stritch one of a kind doesn't even begin to describe her stature. Especially in certain circles. She's funny. After a questioner from the audience insisted on calling her "Elaine Stretch" (twice), she responded quick as a flash, with a useful rhyme that might aid the memory in the future. She's revelatory.

The most interesting news for theater-lovers in the house was that Stritch said she was in advanced stages of negotiation to appear in a new play at Steppenwolf. That's the kind of information that Steppenwolf, like most institutions, would only talk about in public once signatures were on bottom lines, but Stritch prefers to muse in public about possibilities. That still makes her an institution. Just an uncommonly open one. And the bon mots flowed all night.

"Touring is so awful you have to fall in love."

"You never know what is happening to yourself when it is happening."

"Jack Cassidy and I got a room between shows. To kiss." (Stritch has famously said she was a virgin until her thirtieth birthday).

Callaway pushed on Stritch's politics. "That's something you ask Gore Vidal," she replied.

But she was happy to dispense apolitical advice for life -- which mostly involves living in the moment, staying off the sauce and keeping well away from Southern California. Especially for those of us who saw "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" (which was most of her audience on Friday), little of this was new. But Stritch never talks entirely out of the self-help, Al-Anon bible, even though she most assuredly adheres to its principles. At one point Friday -- even as she recounted the pleasures of and necessity for total sobriety, a state that came to her late in life -- she described the effects of booze as "extraordinary."

"So you have to give it its due," she said.

That's a classic Stritch line and it reflects her astonishingly full and articulate understanding of all of life's complexities, hedonistic and otherwise. She's still here. And she still has a hell of a lot to say that's well worth hearing. When she's next in town, she'll probably be spouting someone else's words. That's both something to look forward to -- and a crying shame.

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