Actress Laura McCann has a line in "The Last Act is a Solo," the Robert Anderson play she appeared in recently, where she says, "What are we going to do with old women?"
What, indeed. McCann is 82, but when she's on stage the lights strike her blue eyes and age dissolves.
The part she plays is that of an aging star who is offered a role in a play in which she has but one line to speak. But the star chooses suicide rather than accept being reduced to one-liners.
The real McCann would have no part of such a solution. "I don't believe in suicide," she said in a recent interview at her home in Marina del Rey. "Life is precious to me."
A native of Germany, McCann made up her mind at an early age to become an actress. And she probably would have remained there if it were not for her mother's ancestry. Wherever McCann found work during the Nazi era, sooner or later she would be asked to produce the papers proving her Aryan origins--and she couldn't because her mother was Jewish.
Every time that happened--more than 100 times--she would disappear underground. One time she managed to land a role that made her part of history: It was in the last production in Nazi Germany of a play by banned author Kurt Weill. The actors staged the play against Nazi orders, and people came from long distances to see it. McCann recalls not being aware of the significance at the time, though; she was just happy to be working as an actress.
"I think everything in my life started with a catastrophe, but each time I knew it would have a good end," she said. "I forbid myself despair. I've been desperate, of course. I couldn't work for 12 years, my artist-husband left because it was too dangerous for him to be married to me. But my house wasn't bombed and I wasn't in a concentration camp. And if I remained in Germany I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't have had my children."
McCann, whose name in Germany was Gert Riederer, met an American serviceman and left Germany with him in 1948. Through all the ups and downs, she has managed to have a 60-year career in the theater, playing parts from Juliet and Ophelia to last year's Maria Josefa in Lorca's "House of Bernarda Alba."
Nowadays, she needs the help of canes when she walks and that limits the roles available to her.
"I saw a Puig play, 'Mystery of the Rose Bouquet,' at the Taper a few years ago where the main part is an actress who stays in bed for the entire performance. I tried to get the rights to it but had the hardest time. So I waited over an hour in the reception area of ICM agency in New York. Finally, after making a nuisance of myself, they offered me 'Last Act Is a Solo.' "
Despite misgivings about the suicide theme, McCann did the play. And like the aging actress she played in it, she refused to be reduced to a cliche or accept no for an answer. For Laura McCann, there's always hope.
"Actors don't quit. I haven't given up on the Puig play or on life. I'm a very free person. I'm poor financially but I live an independent life and that's worth a lot."