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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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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