Her Art Imitates Her Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It usually is trite to say an actress has been training for a role all her life. But as Linda Thorson prepares to play Esme Allen, the fictitious English stage star in David Hare's "Amy's View," the cliche happens to be true.

Some actors go to heroic or foolhardy extremes to embody a part--such as Robert DeNiro's weight gain so he could play a bloated Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."

But who, no matter how committed, would undertake to raise a child as a single parent, naively sign over control of her investments to a financial advisor, only to see him mismanage them into practically nothing, and resort to appearing on a daytime soap opera strictly because she needed the cash?

All of these things happen to Esme in Hare's play, which has its West Coast premiere this weekend at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. And they happened to Thorson too--although not precisely in that order, and certainly not by design.

Thorson was 20 and just out of England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when she co-starred in one of the top cult-favorite TV shows of all time, playing the sexy secret agent Tara King opposite Patrick Macnee on "The Avengers" in 1968-69.

Since then she has played a variety of roles in a variety of settings, with extensive theatrical credits on Broadway, in London's West End, and in touring productions, as well as in frequent film and television parts.

The tall, slender actress is an engaging sort who has a sense of humor about herself and is free with praise for other actors. Before starting to talk about herself and her play, she started an interview last week in a backstage dressing room by gushing about SCR's recent production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," and how she had been practically dumbstruck by Linda Gehringer's devastating performance as the mother, Kate Keller.

"It makes you think you're playing in the big game," Thorson said. "That brings out the best in all of us. Like in tennis, when you're playing somebody really good, your game is better."

Thorson is a champ at the game of exuding easy charm. She punctuated her lively conversation by waving her hands freely, sometimes clasping a pair of gold-framed glasses that she never put on. At sudden peaks of enthusiasm she would lean far forward to tap a listener on the shin.

Thorson discovered her this-is-your-life connection to "Amy's View" in the most direct, immediate way: Last spring she went to the Broadway production starring Judi Dench and marveled at the parallels--and at a Dench's "definitive" performance.

Naturally, Thorson imagined herself playing the part. Her first reaction was doubt: "I wondered whether I could even deal with it, because it was so close to home."

'Similar Instincts About the Play'

Last fall, Mark Rucker, the director of SCR's production, met with her in New York City (she lives in Mamaroneck, a Westchester County suburb, with her 15-year-old son, Trevor) to sound her out about the part. Rucker said others at SCR had suggested Thorson for the part, remembering her from her previous performance there 19 years ago in "The Play's the Thing."

That's when Rucker learned about the parallels between Esme and Thorson. "It just felt exactly right," he said. "We had similar instincts about the play, and she certainly very much understands where this woman comes from."

By this time, Thorson had no doubts: "I said, 'I will do anything to get you to let me play this part.' I never said that to a director before."

Reservations about the shadow of Dench, an Oscar winner as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love," had been replaced by hunger for a great part--few of which, Thorson said, are being written these days for 52-year-old actresses like herself.

"I'm just like Esme," she said. "At this point in my career, I'm going to grab an opportunity."

Hare's play has several layers and crosscurrents. Esme, the stage diva, has a loving, best-buddies relationship with her 22-year-old daughter, Amy.

Until, that is, Esme shockingly betrays a confidence in hopes of scaring off Amy's boyfriend, Dominic, of whom she disapproves. Not least of Dominic's flaws, in Esme's view, is his scorn for the theater as a boring, antiquated institution and his zeal to become a mover and shaker as a TV talk show host and film producer.

In a story that arcs from 1979 to 1995, Hare, a filmmaker as well as a playwright, explores ideas about the worth of the theater in an age of mass media, the aesthetics of acting and the crumbling of tradition before commerce. But above all, the play asks whether what the others call "Amy's view"--her guiding principle that love must be pursued doggedly, and that it will conquer in the end--can in fact prevail in this fiercely loving but flawed and fractured family.

Thorson thinks the play's strength is its fairness to all the characters, even though theater audiences will probably root for Esme's grand, stalwart stage actress over Dominic's usurping multimedia big shot.

Should anybody impugn the play's degree of realism, Thorson, who doesn't know Hare and thinks he scripted the role of Esme with Dench's abilities in mind, could hold herself out as defense Exhibit A.

Thorson and her third husband, television talk personality Bill Boggs, divorced when their son, Trevor, was 1 year old. Thorson, raised in Toronto, but most at home in England, decided about 10 years ago that she would return to London, where she has a small flat in a tony section, live modestly and be a stage actress.

Then a lucrative role came knocking--a three-year part on the soap opera "One Life to Live." She needed the money and took the part. She still dreams of returning to England and acting on stage there, perhaps after Trevor starts college.

'Reading the Fine Print'

Two years ago, at a time when it seemed almost impossible for investors to lose, Thorson watched her holdings evaporate. Or, more exactly, she says they evaporated while she wasn't watching.

An investment advisor who had other show-biz clients had taken control of her portfolio. "He took me to a fabulous restaurant and he was a good-looking guy and I filled out all the forms," Thorson said.

In "Amy's View," Esme pays an even higher price for having been blithely indifferent to her financial affairs. "I have taken my life in my own hands," the fictional actress says as she tries to carry on after that disaster. The real one concurs: "It's taken me 52 years to read the fine print, but I'll do it from now on."

Thorson's life experience finds her prepared even for a small, odd detail such as the closing scene in which Esme, poised to go on stage in the play that has rekindled her career, douses herself with water as the unseen play-within-a-play requires.

Thorson is an expert in being soaked on stage: she was in the early 1980s Broadway production of "Steaming," about six women who meet at a London bathhouse and sit around talking. "Not only were we wet and cold, but we were naked," she recalled cheerfully.

Thorson says she differs from Esme in one crucial respect: She vowed when her son was little that she would not--could not--try to control his choices, and she began preparing then for the day he would leave the nest.

"If people feel trapped, they want to get out," she said. "They'll struggle and struggle and have a bad memory and never come back. If they're free, they'll come back. . . . Let them have the feeling they can fly when they're very young."

Her son will, in fact, be in flight--on a high school trip to China--when Thorson plays Esme for the first time Friday.

The play ends with a sense of rapprochement but leaves it ambiguous as to whether Amy's view of love as a conquering force will indeed be borne out. Thorson votes yes.

"Many people who saw the play [on Broadway] thought it was such a downer, but I thought it was uplifting. How else do we survive and go on if you couldn't forgive and love?"

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"Amy's View," by David Hare, at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Previews begin Friday, with opening night April 14. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $18-$47, with a pay-what-you-will matinee April 15. Ends May 14. (714) 708-5555.

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