Rae Allen believes you can go home again.
Twenty years ago, she won a Tony Award for best supporting actress in the original Broadway production of Paul Zindel's "And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little." Now she's back with the play--but this time in the director's chair, staging a razor-sharp revival of the piece at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood. And she's quick to assess the differences between her version and the 1971 Melvin Bernhardt staging.
"I think it's more humanistic," Allen said of her take on the material, the story of three sisters coming to grips with their lives--and the layers of familial dysfunction that have built to this crisis point. "Having a woman director, there's a different grasp on the relationships. Also, it's more timely now. That kind of co-dependency in families was considered peculiar then. Now it's very common."
In the original staging--which starred Estelle Parsons, Julie Harris and Nancy Marchand--Allen played the nosy but well-intentioned neighbor Fleur (as in "May I take your fur, Fleur?" ) Stein. This time, Gloria Le Roy has the role.
"As a director, you always consider the personality of the actor," said Allen, a New York native who resettled in Los Angeles in 1981. "I'd known Gloria for years, and Fleur seemed to shape right out of her persona--her own natural ebullience and energy. But the most important thing about Fleur is that she's not a comic character; she needs to be played for real, not a caricature. When I did the role, I did an awful lot of that kind of work on it--and that's what I pushed Gloria for."
Allen is not the only "Reardon" alumnus connected with this production. Actress Samantha Harper, who brought Allen on board and is playing the troubled sister, Anna, is married to Bill Macy, who played the role of Ben Stein in the original. And Paul Lieber, who had the small part of the delivery boy in the Broadway show, is now playing Ben Stein.
"When Rae called, it was an offer I couldn't refuse," Lieber jokes. He was 18--and making his stage debut--when "Reardon" premiered in 1971. "It's great to play someone who smokes and drinks, is insensitive and abusive, who has all the answers but no insight," he said. "Actually, I identify a lot with Ben: I want easy answers, simple solutions; I have a lot of rage inside. So doing this part is really an indulgence, a crossing of boundaries."
For Allen, whose training includes Ellis Rabb's legendary APA Theatre, John Houseman's Theatre Group at UCLA and New York University, where she got a graduate degree, the crossed boundaries have more to do with her dual careers as actress and director: one moment taking direction, the next, calling all the shots.
"It's a wonderful thing to surrender to a director, a director's ideas," said Allen, whose last acting assignment was playing Geena Davis' mother in the upcoming film "A League of Their Own" for director Penny Marshall.
"Penny is just divine. Imaginative, fun, totally trusts her instincts. I think working with women directors is very comfortable. There's a vocabulary we don't have to use; the understanding is just implicit."
Allen balances her own directing (she headed theaters in New York and Massachusetts) with acting workshops (touring from Australia to Germany), private coaching and a lot of acting--from Broadway roles ("Damn Yankees," "Fiddler on the Roof," "On a Clear Day," "Oliver" and "Pajama Game") to "A Lie of the Mind" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and TV appearances on "Family Ties," "Hill Street Blues," "Equal Justice" and "Fairie Tale Theatre."
"My dream is to do it all," she admits. "But I do think people have to get used to the idea of women directors. Sometimes I'm treated with amazement--but always with respect. If you know what you're doing, people listen. You have to work not out of mechanical strength, but of personal power. Sometimes you have to make compromises, convince people to come along with you. It takes a lot of time, patience, energy and love--for actors, acting, playwrights. But that's also the fun of it."
"And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little" plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Dec. 18 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. The show will reopen Jan. 9 and run through Feb. 1. Admission: $10. (213) 660-8587.