No fear in the face of ‘Woolf’

Times Staff Writer

WHAT a dump.

The rickety table in a grimy little Manhattan office is littered with coffee cups and old newspapers. Steam pipes hiss in the old Midtown building and the windows are caked with dirt. The scene is eerily quiet on this winter afternoon, but then a booming, howling voice shatters the calm. Down the hall, actors are rehearsing for the national tour of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and Kathleen Turner, cast as Martha, is ripping into her husband, George.

“You getting angry, baby?” she bellows, blistering him for failing to live up to his potential. “Maybe Georgie boy didn’t have the stuff

First appearances are deceiving in the dreary rehearsal space, and the surprises are just beginning. When the first act draws to a fiery close, Turner huddles briefly with director Anthony Page, then strides across the room to greet a visitor. The actress who shot to stardom as a smoldering blond temptress in 1981’s “Body Heat” looks shockingly transformed: She’s now a heavyset, middle-aged woman with puffy eyes. Her voice is wracked with a cough, her brown hair unkempt. Battles she has fought with rheumatoid arthritis, drinking, a collapsing marriage, weight gain and gossip are writ large on her face.


Turner looks perfectly cast, in other words, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which opens Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre. And she couldn’t care less if friends in Hollywood are shocked by her appearance, if insiders titter that the once-svelte bombshell has frittered away her film career. She presents herself boldly, oozing physical confidence, as if to say: “This is me. Deal with it.”

And while you’re at it, get ready for a theatrical assault.

Albee’s play, which shocked audiences when it opened in 1962, pitilessly exposes the sickening prison of a long-term marriage. But it also reveals the dark, psychological bonds that enable a couple as quarrelsome, as viciously sadistic as George and Martha, to remain together. Besides Turner, the cast includes Bill Irwin, who will be reprising his 2005 Tony-winning role of George. They’re joined by David Furr and Kathleen Early as Nick and Honey, the unsuspecting couple who are lured to George and Martha’s house for a 2 a.m. round of fun and games, such as “Get the Guest” and “Hump the Hostess.”

Critics in New York, London and Washington, D.C., have hailed Turner’s performance. The London Evening Standard raved that “the lethally effective, mesmerizing Miss Turner, a butch, boozy broad in a middle-aged spread of malice, and a tight blouse, does her sadistic bit with all the lazy nonchalance of a maid swatting flies.”

Less than five years ago, Turner, now 52, starred on Broadway as Mrs. Robinson in a dramatic version of “The Graduate,” the 1967 movie. For a celebrated 20 seconds, she stood naked onstage. Those days are behind her. But on the morning after the “Virginia Woolf” rehearsal, in a quiet hotel coffee shop, Turner let out a lusty laugh when asked what it’s like to play the Wife from Hell.

“I read the play when I was about 20, and I loved Martha, the excitement, the recklessness, the pathos, the tragedy of her,” she said. “And I thought, ‘OK, when I’m 50, this will be my role.’ ” Years later, she had gained a keener insight into the character’s psychology, and although Turner was initially terrified to take on such an iconic part, “I really did think I was the one to do the role, that I am the one to do it.”

She has big shoes to fill. Uta Hagen played Martha memorably in the original cast; Colleen Dewhurst led a highly praised 1976 revival in New York, and Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her performance in the 1966 film. But Albee says Turner’s performance is stellar: “She reminds me of Uta Hagen,” he said by phone. “They both got the essence of Martha -- the intelligence, the toughness, the irony, the self-deception. And I think Kathleen has a bit more humor than Uta did.”

Comedy is a key weapon for Martha, and it also serves Turner well in real life. Unlike other former ingenues -- who rail against Hollywood’s scorn for older actresses -- the star of “Romancing the Stone,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” happily thumbs her nose at the film biz. She scoffs at the notion that men in their 50s and 60s can star with younger women, while mature actresses are put out to pasture.

Indeed, Turner has just won two prestigious acting awards for the recently concluded British run of “Virginia Woolf” -- the London Evening Standard award and the London Critics’ Circle award -- and she’s a finalist for this year’s Olivier. And she was nominated for a Tony in the 2005 Broadway revival.

All of this is a source of immense pride. While Turner insists she’s not bitter about a box office career that has noticeably slowed, she talks caustically about Tinseltown and the reception she expects when “Virginia Woolf” opens.

“Well, I’m sure one of the first comments will be: ‘Hasn’t she put on weight!’ or ‘She still looks good!’ ” Turner cracked. “Honest to God. I mean, the first comment out of everybody’s mouth in Los Angeles is how you look, No. 1. Hopefully they’ll get past that to see Martha and to see the work.”

It will be a blessing if they do, she added, because “I’ve never really seen an extraordinary piece of theater in my time there [in Los Angeles]. Now mind you, that’s mostly because I’ve been working, so I haven’t had time to go to the theater. But I’m hoping they’ll see the quality of what theater can and should be and perhaps invest more in creating good theater in Los Angeles.”

As for the venue, Turner has her doubts. “I’m a little wary of the Ahmanson,” she said. “When I’ve seen a play there it struck me like an airplane hangar or something, and this is such an intimate play. Part of its power is that you feel like a voyeur, that you’re looking in the windows of someone’s living room. There’s a dreadful fascination and embarrassment, and I’m not sure how we’ll re-create that out there.”

Drawn to the stage

TURNER is one of a growing number of Hollywood stars who have gone back to their theater roots. But with her it’s more like a religion than a star turn. She’s amused at the panic that some established stars feel about returning to the stage. When she agreed to play Maggie the Cat in the 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Turner recalled that “Michael Douglas called me. Danny DeVito called me. Jack Nicholson called me. And they all said: ‘Don’t do it! Don’t go back! They’re out to kill you! They’re not going to accept you onstage! It won’t work!’ ”

She won a Tony nomination for that role.

Even at the height of her film career, Turner preferred to live only temporarily in L.A.; she hurried back to New York, her longtime home, whenever shooting was done. By the early 1990s, she was living in Greenwich Village with her Realtor husband, Jay Weiss, and their daughter, Rachel, now 19.

Then the world caved in on her.

During the filming of 1994’s “Serial Mom,” Turner began feeling an uncomfortable swelling in her feet, pain in her joints and, finally, a mysterious pain throughout her body. After getting false diagnoses and taking painkilling steroids that caused her to swell up, she learned she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The actress eventually found drugs that reduced the discomfort and put the disease into remission. But the pain has never fully gone away.

Meanwhile, her personal life was crumbling. Two years ago she split up with Weiss, her husband of 21 years. And long before that there were rumors she had been drinking heavily. At one point, Turner said, she decided it was better to let the gossip go unanswered. “People in the film world might be put off by talk about a disease,” she explained. “But when it comes to people who drink, that’s something they understand. They hire them over and over.”

There finally came a point, however, when Turner admitted she had a drinking problem and had spent time in rehab. Yet even those dark moments had a silver lining, she said, because they helped her prepare for the role of the alcoholic Martha. The actress said she drew on “my own bout of excessive drinking that went on a couple of years ago, but thankfully I have no need for anymore. That was a very, very bad time, and many things were happening with my rheumatoid arthritis, with my marriage, with a lot of factors that were upsetting. But that’s past, sorted, under control. These are huge lessons I bring to Martha.”

Turner was keen to play the role but said Albee was initially cool to the idea of a revival. Still, the actress persuaded him over lunch to give the idea a shot. Albee asked Page -- who had earlier directed his play “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” in London -- to hold a reading in his Chelsea apartment. They cast Irwin as George, and the first run-through was “raw,” Turner recalled. But she got a call hours later that the playwright had agreed to a new production starring her and Irwin.

“I had absolutely no qualms about asking Kathleen to play Martha, because I knew she was a very good actress,” Albee said. “But I would never cast Martha without knowing who would be George. And the two of them, Bill and Kathleen, do bring out the best in each other.”

They’re a study in contrasts: Turner’s Martha explodes with rage, swinging a club and not caring whom she clobbers. Irwin’s George is more cagey and fights with a razor, choosing moments to attack.

Company’s camaraderie

INEVITABLY, their onstage chemistry has come to resemble the rhythms of a marriage. Like many couples, they finish each other’s sentences. During the New York run, Irwin said, he once had trouble remembering a line and was momentarily frozen. Turner, sensing his unease, quietly spoke the line for him and the play continued without a hitch. He returned the favor recently when Turner had “a rough patch” in the third act. “As the cast took its bows that night,” he said, “Kathleen whispered: ‘We all watch out for each other, baby.’ ”

It also helps to be in sync with the director. Page said Turner was easy to direct in the play and that there wasn’t any friction. But she had to learn to trust him first, and their relationship has evolved over the last two years.

“I realized later that, in the early stages, I sometimes misdirected her, but I’ve found her incredibly honest and serious, down-to-earth and intuitive about where to go,” he noted. “It was an important moment when I encouraged her to go with her instincts, even to the extent of improvising a performance in front of an audience, because her instincts are brilliant.”

In the future, Turner hopes to expand her stage career by directing, and perhaps tackling the role of Lady Macbeth. She also wants to spend at least half of the year making movies in Italy, where she believes producers are more open to casting “sexy older women of power,” the roles she covets. “I’m told I’m still sexy,” she said dryly.

There is a scene in Act 2 of “Virginia Woolf” when it’s on full display. Martha has begun her slow, inevitable seduction of Nick, the arrogant young professor, and she pulls him toward her, saying in a husky voice: “Hey ... hand me a cigarette, lover. That’s a good boy.”

It’s an electric moment. The tension is no less menacing than it was in “Body Heat,” so many years ago, when the 27-year-old Turner, in her first screen role, cast the same kind of spell on William Hurt.

“Still works, doesn’t it?” she said with a wink.


‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Opens Friday. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 18 | Price: $20 to $80 | Contact: (213) 628-2772