Femmes Et Al : Monologues by five actresses look at ‘The Middle Ages of Women’ and find renewaloutweighs regret
Linda Carlson, Mary Pat Gleason, Ann Guilbert, Elaine Joyce and Joanna Miles. The common denominator is easy. They’re all women--and actresses. But when it comes to their roles in Meredith Cofren’s “Growing Gracefully: The Middle Ages of Women” (at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood), the characters are all over the map.
The collection of monologues includes Guilbert as a garrulous lunch date, a savvy Washington insider and a forgetful widow. Carlson is a fading star and a retired lesbian schoolteacher. Gleason is an obedient Irish Catholic in the confessional, then a wisecracking truck-stop waitress.
Joyce goes from a bouncy Vegas divorcee to a rodeo wife, to a nurse tending her diaper-bound stroke-victim mother. Miles is a baseball bat-wielding vigilante, a mother whose child is killed in a car accident, and an older Jewish woman learning to make friends with computers.
“I think this show is about the triumph of human spirit,” noted Miles. “Each character, in one way or another, finds that handle.” Unarguably, it’s a woman’s piece--about women, by a woman. And, she believes, it’s a positive, distinct perspective: “I do think women have a further distance to go to triumph. We think we’re the nurturers and men are about triumphing. But here are women, each one coming up against something they have to overcome. And they do.”
Joyce feels the show can be a good learning experience for males.
“The men friends of mine who’ve come enjoy the fact that these women are not neurotics, not lost, not scattered,” she said. “They’re coming to terms with life. And it makes them closer to the person they’re with, having seen what women go through: how they rally, how they struggle, how they have humor about it. Also, it’s something we all go through, either with our wives, our mothers, our children. So it touches every person--or it will, somewhere down the line.”
As for the actresses’ relationships to the material, Gleason thinks the connections are built in. “I think everyone had to bring something personal to each piece they do, or know these characters on some wavelength,” she said. “You always have to do that. It’s virtually impossible to get up and be convincing in something you know nothing about. So the rehearsal process becomes about taking events in your life and plugging them in, so you can make it as personal as possible.”
Some of the parallels hit close to home. The monologue by her aging actress character, Carlson noted, is right on the mark.
“She says, ‘It’s not enough to be talented; you have to be perfect.’ I agree. All that stuff: people getting plastic surgery, changing their bodies. What it says is that
the packaging is more important than the substance. Look at what women do to stay in the casting pool--constantly keeping themselves beautiful and in shape, even when they’re already major stars. The reality of this business is that it’s not something you have a choice about. If you’re going to be a glam girl, you’ve got to toe the line.”
Guilbert also knows the pitfalls of industry expectation.
“For a long time, I felt like I had to present a person who was either terribly funny or like the role I’d done on the old ‘Dick Van Dyke Show,’ ” she said, referring to her Millie Helper character. “I couldn’t let whatever talent I felt I had loose in Hollywood. No one seemed to want it or to understand it. Now I don’t really care. I do the work the way I think I should--and if they don’t like it, fine. Not quite 10 years ago, I got an opportunity to be in regional theater. That phone call lifted the lid off the boiling kettle, let the steam out. Since then, I’ve been on an inner roll. To me, it was like dying and going to heaven.”
Miles is just now approaching a similar crossroads in her career.
“I’ve always been a leading lady. But now I’m getting older,” she said, “and if I’m going to continue doing this, I’ve got to learn to play character roles. Otherwise I’m not going to be able to work. All the men who were my leading men are now playing my son, and the men who were playing my father are now playing my lovers. I just got asked to do a movie for television playing across E. G. Marshall. My God--he’s 79 years old! It never entered anybody’s mind that maybe I was a little bit too young for him.”
She admits that this transition period is terrifying.
“There’s a temptation to look at yourself and say, ‘I’ll get my face done, try to hang on.’ But then you look at other people who’ve done that, and it’s mortifying. So if that’s not your choice, what are you going to do?” That society doesn’t revere age, she feels “is a real pity. We’re all getting older. My mother is 80, and she’s fabulous. She’s a painter; she has a show in New York. She’s not sitting around waiting to die. That’s what this should be about: We’ve gone through the growing period. We’ve found out who we are. Now let’s enjoy ourselves. Let’s be proud of ourselves.”
It isn’t easy when the industry cares so much about youth.
“They tell you with rejection,” Carlson said, “that you’re not young enough to play this part anymore. Statistically, you get to be 40, 45, and--unless you’re Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep--the role availability hits an incredible lull. Then when you’re about 65, you start playing crusty old women. So for most of us, character work is where we have to go. Fortunately in television, the character work is really the most interesting--rather than the all-American mommies.”
There are some positive signs of change. Joyce notes that her TV producer husband is surrounded by female executives who want to create movies with women’s stories, women’s concerns, women’s roles--and women’s points of view.
“We’re the industry,” Gleason said firmly. “We are responsible for what goes on. So those of us who are writing: Don’t be writing for 18-year-olds. . . . The industry only reflects what we want. We have to say ‘I have respect for myself, and I’m not interested in the problems of a 19-year-old. I want to know about the problems of a woman at 50, ‘cause I’m cruising toward it.’ It’s important for people to write about that--and it’s important for us to demand that it’s there.”