WASHINGTON -- Her 50 years in the theater have brought Marian Seldes lots of choice roles in lots of long-running shows, but few have transported her to the heights of her star turn in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women."
"I've been, for want of a better phrase, a supporting actress so much of my life. The opportunity to, in a sense, be the play -- the character without which there is no play -- is so fulfilling for me that I cannot express it," the actress says of her role in the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It begins a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday. "I feel every night, I can't wait to do it."
Seldes -- who won a Tony Award for her supporting role in Albee's "A Delicate Balance" in 1967 -- was inducted last month into New York's Theatre Hall of Fame. The Los Angeles engagement of "Three Tall Women" kept her from attending the ceremony, but her co-star, Michael Learned, stopped the curtain call the night before to read a message from Albee: "Dearest Marian, I am glad that the Theatre Hall of Fame has finally realized what many of us have known for a long time that you are immortal."
In "Three Tall Women," Seldes plays a domineering 92-year-old dowager, identified only as "A" and based on the playwright's adoptive mother. The other two women are A's 52-year-old caretaker (B) and a young lawyer (C), who is attempting to put A's affairs in order. After intermission, Albee's seemingly naturalistic drama takes a brilliant turn in which an unexpected connection between the three women gradually becomes apparent.
A striking woman who speaks in warm, theatrical tones punctuated with "my dear's" and "darling's," Seldes, 67, expressed her enthusiasm for A over a leisurely lunch -- shared with her husband of five and a half years, writer Garson Kanin -- during the play's Washington run.
In a sense -- as she is the first to admit -- her devotion to A sounds a bit disingenuous. Originally, she acknowledges, she was interested only in B, the character she portrayed in the play's 1992 American debut in Woodstock, N.Y., and subsequently off-Broadway, before taking over the role of A in August. Now, Seldes says, "I feel like a cheating lover because I really am obsessed with A."
Over the years, Seldes has made somewhat of a practice of switching roles, beginning with her 1947 Broadway debut in "Medea," in which she first played a non-speaking attendant and subsequently played each member of the three-woman chorus. Her most notable instance of role-switching came in the Broadway production of "Equus," in which she played the magistrate before taking over the role of the mother.
Referring to her initial reluctance to play A in "Three Tall Women," Seldes says, "Looking back, I wonder what was going on in my mind. Here is the greatest part I've ever played, and I was finding a way not to play it. It's the luckiest thing that ever happened to me -- to play both."
Rich, arrogant and anti-Semitic, the character of A is, in Seldes' -- words, a "gorgon" -- a term she insists is not derogatory. "I love her. I absolutely understand her," she says.
One reason for that understanding may be that she has known numerous strong women whose influence she recognizes in her portrayal. These include legendary actresses Judith Anderson (in whose "Medea" Seldes made her Broadway debut), Katharine Cornell (godmother of Seldes' only child, Katharine Andres), and Tallulah Bankhead.
Seldes appeared with Bankhead in Tennessee Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," which turned out to be Bankhead's last play. The play came to Baltimore in 1963 on a pre-Broadway tour -- the last time Seldes played here before "Three Tall Women."
"Milk Train's" Baltimore engagement coincided with the Christmas holidays, Seldes recalls, and she planned to spend all of her spare time with her daughter, who was on vacation from school. Bankhead had trouble understanding this, says Seldes, who describes the late actress as a "phenomenon" -- a term that also applies to the character of A. "There's almost this terrifying energy, and that's what Tallulah had," she explains. "That made an enormous impression on me."
She also had role models for A closer to home. She remembers her maternal grandmother, Mary Brown Hall, telling her: "You know who I think is the most unforgettable character I ever met? Your father, Gilbert Seldes -- a Jew, certainly." Her grandmother's gesture of disapproval -- running her tongue on the outside of her teeth, with her lips closed -- has even worked its way into her depiction of A.
On stage, in addition to these strong women, Seldes also feels the influence of the male directors, actors and writers who have nurtured and guided her career, including John Gielgud; her teacher, Sanford Meisner; and her current husband, Garson Kanin. "I think they gave me faith," she says.
"They helped me. I have had a career in which almost without exception, every single person I've worked with has helped me. And for that reason, I mourn them. I want to say, 'Look at this.
Now I have something to show you.' And that includes my parents."
Seldes' family, particularly on her father's side, is exceptional in its own right. Her paternal grandfather immigrated to this country from Russia to found a Utopian commune in Alliance, N.J. Her paternal grandmother -- another strong female -- was the post mistress and midwife at the Alliance commune, and her father and his brother, George, both of whom became influential writers and critics, were raised there. Her grandfather corresponded with Leo Tolstoy. Her parents' friends included e.e. cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.
In her 1978 memoir, "The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life," the actress writes: "A longing to move from my own time to my father's, to share in lives before my life, to say aloud the words and thoughts I read in my childhood, pulled me toward the theater as a life work."
Seldes, in turn, passed her love of theater onto the next generation in more than two decades of teaching at the Juilliard School. Her students included William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Kelly McGillis, Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Reeve.
Kanin jokes, she says, that they can't go to the theater without seeing someone she taught.
Reading "The Bright Lights" -- a book that is much more about the craft of theater than it is a standard memoir -- is probably like studying with Seldes at Juilliard. But while her father's world may have led her to those bright lights, her mother's social WASP background provided the material for her 1981 novel, "Time Together." Lately, she has been thinking that this tale of three generations of a wealthy New York family would make a good mini-series.
She's also been slowly working on a new novel about her father and the Utopian community. But she hasn't made as much progress as she'd like. "Acting takes so much energy," she says. The literary gene appears to be dominant in her family. Her
brother, Timothy Seldes, is a literary agent who represents Anne Tyler, and her daughter, Katharine -- married to a former Baltimorean named Clay Andres -- is a writing teacher and author of children's books.
Besides "Three Tall Women," Seldes' schedule has included portraying the Widow Douglas in the movie "Tom and Huck." One of her favorite sidelines was playing Aunt Brooke on "Murphy Brown" several years ago. It was such a positive experience that her stage contracts used to include a clause permitting her to take time off to shoot future episodes, should the TV show call again.
Right now, though, four months into "Three Tall Women's" open-ended national tour, Seldes says she is enjoying herself even more than when she first performed the play three and a half years ago. "Much more," she says, "because you gain a little confidence each time you play. It's a very daunting part, and you find each time a little more confidence and faith in your ability to do it."
And, after putting her mark on two of the play's three tall women, this tall actress -- who says she "thinks" she's 5 feet 9 inches -- teases, "I have a running joke with everybody that I want to play C."
Even so, Seldes, whose devotion to the 83-year-old Kanin is evident in her adoring gaze, says she wouldn't have considered touring if her husband hadn't been able to accompany her. She believes her marriage to him has increased her confidence and calm.
What has she brought Kanin? Silent throughout most of lunch, the elderly writer and director says without hesitation, "love." And Seldes, who frequently takes her husband's hand in hers, lowers her head to the table, sighs and nearly breaks down.
What: "Three Tall Women"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Feb. 27-March 10. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays
! Tickets: $20-$40