Elizabeth McGovern came to Southern California and landed on a rocky beach in Scotland. "I really feel that's where I've gone," she said.
The New York-based screen actress, sitting alone in an empty theater here, was describing her four weeks of intense rehearsals at South Coast Repertory for the central role in Sharman MacDonald's "When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout . . . "
The Scottish play about a difficult mother-daughter relationship, co-starring veteran Broadway actress Dana Ivey, begins previews tonight and opens Friday on the SCR Second Stage in its American premiere. Simon Stokes, who staged the original 1984 production in London, is directing.
"It's the story of my character's passage from sexual innocence to sexual experience," McGovern said in a recent interview. "That is a journey which I think always causes conflict--particularly between mothers and daughters. I don't think there's any woman alive who hasn't known of that."
In this instance, the mother has a conventional attitude toward sex that is typical of her provincial Calvinist background. The daughter happens to have been a precocious sexual rebel, which naturally exacerbates the conflict.
According to the original script, the play unfolds in 1983 on the east coast of Scotland, where Morag and her daughter, Fiona, who is 32, return to their hometown for a conciliatory weekend together. But much of the action occurs in flashback, taking McGovern as far back as 1955 to scenes of Fiona's childhood and up through the 1960s during her teen-age years.
For all the apparent distance separating McGovern's own experience growing up in the San Fernando Valley and that of a young woman reared in a Scottish seaside town, the 29-year-old actress maintained that the role of Fiona reverberates with profoundly familiar sentiments.
"It reminds me of a lot of the things that were resonating within me," McGovern said. "I guess it has to do with my being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant--a WASP, if you will--which is a heritage that I have in my blood and bones.
"I think Sharman MacDonald really touches on all the voices in a woman's head. I recognize them from my own background. These voices are all about the kind of guilt women experience about sexual pleasure and having sexual desires. Actually, the play is not about sexuality per se, but about these voices."
McGovern looked--in her pink sweat shirt and faded jeans with ragged knee patches--like nothing so much as an earnest, no-frills girl-next-door. Her serious blue eyes sometimes sparkled with sudden mischief, and the sensuous shape of her mouth dissolved into a sunny smile hinting at less provocative secrets than guilty pleasures.
In fact, McGovern's ability to personify a virtual chorus of divergent voices has been one of the hallmarks of her career. Her roles in nearly a dozen movies, and perhaps as many plays over the past decade, have ranged across a wide spectrum.
Robert Redford cast her in "Ordinary People," her 1980 movie debut, as Timothy Hutton's sensible girlfriend, a model of suburban grace. The next year she starred in Milos Forman's "Ragtime" as a kooky former chorine whose good-time antics--nude and otherwise--scandalized polite society.
Since then, McGovern has played everything from Dudley Moore's psychiatric patient in "Lovesick" and Robert DeNiro's brutally raped dream girl in "Once Upon a Time in America" to Sean Penn's outsider match in "Racing With the Moon" and Kevin Bacon's nagging housewife in "She's Having a Baby."
Currently, she can be seen as Mickey Rourke's blue-collar beauty in "Johnny Handsome." And her percolating screen career also includes two forthcoming pictures, "A Shock to the System" with Michael Caine and "The Handmaid's Tale" with Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.
Given so much Hollywood success, why has McGovern shifted her attention to a little-known play for a four-week run at SCR's 161-seat Second Stage?
"Because it gives me such joy," she replied. "I can't think of any other answer. It's really the most accurate one. Maybe that's a selfish reason. But it's so satisfying, and it's such a challenge in a different way from movies."
McGovern noted, moreover, that she often mixes stage roles with screen roles--to the occasional discomfort of her agent. Last year at this time she did Jean Anouilh's "Ring Round the Moon" at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and, several months before that, a Brazilian-style version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Public Theater in New York.
"It's not a question of being dissatisfied with movies," she said. "I am basically attracted by the material, the other actors and the director. Whether a project is going to be a movie or a play is immaterial to me."
In any case, "When I Was a Girl . . . " appears likely to have another life on the East Coast. If the production proves successful at SCR, according to Stokes, a group of New York investors led by Richard Frankel intend to import it to an off-Broadway theater in the spring.
McGovern's name value "doesn't hurt from the New York point of view," Stokes acknowledged. But he said he cast her strictly on merit after several sources had recommended her.
"I haven't seen any of her movies, I am ashamed to say," the British director remarked. "I met her and liked her. She is right for the part. . . . One needs an innocence--which she has--to give the play its accuracy."
McGovern, who was born in Evanston, Ill., said she comes from an academic rather than a theatrical family. She moved to Encino at age 10, when her father, who had taught at Northwestern University Law School, took a job at UCLA. Her mother also is a teacher.
Although McGovern said she didn't go to plays or movies "any more than other kids," she remembered being inspired to become an actress at age 15 by a performance Julie Harris gave in a touring production of "The Belle of Amherst."
"I'll never forget that," she said. "There was just something about her--her goodness and charity and her spirit--that was seminal for me."
"When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout . . . " begins previews tonight and opens Friday on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory. Through Dec. 10. Curtain times Tuesdays to Saturdays are at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets $14-$16 (previews); $20-$27 (beginning Friday). Information: (714) 957-4033.