THEATER : Michael Learned's 'Tall' Order : Television stardom had her wondering if she was up to the demands of Edward Albee's 'Three Tall Women.' She needn't have worried.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Paloma, a pint-size Boston bull terrier with the persona of a Mafia hit man, is in ferocious and noisy pursuit of a plastic bottle cap that has lodged beneath the sofa in Michael Learned's living room.

The itty-bitty dog barks and cries plaintively until the actress, who is trying to give an interview, can no longer ignore her pleas. She moves the coffee table out of the way, gets down on her hands and knees and peers beneath the couch.

"I can't even see it," Learned implores the still-yapping pooch. "Forget about the cap. OK, OK. I know, I know. All right, here."

Upright once again, the actress apologizes. "It's really sick; I even tuck her in bed at night," she admits, with a sigh. "Well, you have to put it somewhere."

The "it," of course, is the maternal instinct that comes from having had three kids by age 24. And even if Learned didn't come by her mom-ness honestly, one would still expect some flock-tending from the actress best known as mother Olivia on the long-running 1970s TV series "The Waltons."

Yet there's more to Learned than her famously maternal ways. The longtime theater actress appears in Edward Albee's 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women," which opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.

A relative newcomer to the cast, Learned has joined Marian Seldes, Christina Rouner and Michael Rhodes, who have been performing "Three Tall Women" together (though not always in the same roles) since the off-Broadway production two years ago. In this configuration, Seldes plays the lead role of a 92-year-old woman who recalls her adventures through youth, middle and older age, and through her interactions with a middle-aged woman called B, and a younger woman called C.

The play is an ensemble piece, focusing on the three female characters, which didn't make joining the production any easier for Learned. But the veteran actress, 56, has risen to the challenge.

"What was extraordinary was how Michael came in and embraced the other two actors and they embraced her," director Lawrence Sacharow says. "Michael was extraordinary in a short period of time. She really knows her way around a stage. You can tell she has vast experience."

Experienced though she may indeed be, Learned was only guardedly confident. "I feel I'm just beginning to get back my theater legs," says the actress, looking svelte and elegant in black jeans and tasteful gold jewelry, as she sits in the living room of her Beverly Hills home.

"I have a feeling I'm turning a corner, but I don't know what corner it's going to be," she continues. "At my age, it's not as if I have intelligent scripts piled up on the table."

Despite her TV fame, Learned has long been a familiar face on California stages. First recognized for her work at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in the early 1970s, she has continued to return to that theater over the decades.

Recently, she has worked both in television and onstage, including a 1993 Broadway turn in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig."

Last June, Learned appeared in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Nancy Churnin, writing in The Times, said that "leading the cast in every sense of the word is Learned in the difficult role of Kate."

But when it came time to make a decision about "Three Tall Women," Learned hesitated. She worried not only about spending so much time away from her Los Angeles home--rehearsing in New York and then performing in Boston and Washington prior to L.A.--but also about the script.

The nuances of Albee's work gave Learned pause. "My fear about this play was that I wouldn't rise to the occasion," she says. "If you care about what you do, you don't want to let people down."

Specifically, Learned was puzzled by her character, B. "I found the first act very difficult because the character is kind of in limbo," the actress says. "She's a caretaker.

"It was hard because she is just a reactor, but she doesn't react with any history," Learned continues. "You have to bring your own history on with you. You have a sense that this woman has had a life, but she doesn't tell you what it is."

After intermission, however, the acting task changes. "In the second act, she does tell you who she is and she's much more alive."

Although the character is still called B, she isn't the same in both acts. "It isn't the same person, according to Albee, so it has to be played that way," Learned says. "I'm still confused about it."

Clearly, though, B does allow Learned to step beyond any motherly niceties. "It's wonderful because I don't have to be nice. And I find the less nice B is to the young girl, the funnier it is in a strange way."

Fortunately, Learned brings a lifetime of training to her portrayal of B.

Born in Washington and raised in Connecticut, Learned moved with her family to Austria when she was an adolescent. While her father was stationed there doing work for the government, Learned was sent to an English arts boarding school.

Soon after the family returned to the States, the then-16-year-old Learned got a summer job at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. There she met an actor named Peter Donat.

At 17, she married Donat. And after a few years in the East, and the birth of two of their three children, the young family moved to San Francisco, where Donat had work at ACT.

"During that time, my primary focus was on Peter and the kids," Learned says. "I never had a driving ambition to be a star."

Nonetheless, she began to act as much as she could, when family duties didn't prevail. "That's where I really started to work," Learned says. "We taught classes, we took classes, and we could be rehearsing one play in the afternoon and performing another at night. Talk about being creative. It was wonderful."

Learned separated from Donat in 1971 and moved to L.A. with her three sons. Shortly thereafter, she landed the job that changed her career.

Even now, she chalks up being cast as Olivia Walton, mom of John-Boy and the brood, in part to luck. "If it's got your name on it, it's just got your name on it. It was a very lucky thing for me. I had no money and three kids to support."

Still, lucky or not, that role changed everything. "That was a big adjustment," Learned says. "Suddenly, everybody wants a piece of you."

As a stage actress, she had mixed feelings about the attention. "Here I was on my own and successful, but I didn't feel I was growing as an actress. It didn't seem like it was a big deal, but there was all this acclaim."

The series ended up running for eight years, during which time Learned won three Emmys for her work. But her "Waltons" role continued to haunt her career for many years after the show went off the air.

"It was hard after being successful," she says. "For a while, it was like I'd fallen off the face of the Earth. I felt really abandoned."

Then, gradually, she began to regain her stride as a stage actress. Performing in plays once again, Learned got back in touch with her love of the stage.

"You have an emotional flexibility on the stage, more so than television, because you go that whole arc in the theater," she says. "In television, you're doing the moment, so you can have a good moment or a bad moment and you can do it over again."

Then, too, the material tends to be more emotionally complex in the theater. "I don't mean to insult television, but a lot of the time, it's pretty straightforward. If you say, 'I love you,' you mean 'I love you.' There isn't time for anything more.

"You tend to forget that if you do a lot of television. You make those superficial choices because you have to, because it's so quick. In the theater, it's not superficial."

In the theater, the text is not only more complex, but often more difficult to perform. Yet exhausting as it may be, it's also sustenance for an actress such as Learned.

"I am not one of those actresses who loves acting," she says, mindful of her own equivocation. "I find it exhausting, frightening and I guess I also love it, or I wouldn't be sitting here. Actually, it's all I know how to do."

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"THREE TALL WOMEN," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Dates: Opens Thursday. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 24. Prices: $28-$35.50. Phone: (213) 365-3500.

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