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Theater honors put women in the spotlight

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NEW YORK -- The theme of the evening, said Marian Seldes, emcee of Monday's 33rd annual Theater Hall of Fame induction, was love of the theater. Standing in front of the usual group of about 125 family and friends of the inductees, she gestured to the 400-plus names already inscribed in gold letters high on the lobby walls of the Gershwin Theatre and spoke of this year's nine inductees joining "golden names -- so much better than golden globes."

Aubrey Reuben
Judith Malina and Patricia Neal were among inductees into a Theater Hall of Fame class especially highlighting the accomplishments of strong women.
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Neal speaks of the joy of being reconnected to the theater, 39 years after a series of strokes forced her to abandon her stage career.(1.4MB MP3)

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She might also have said the theme was strong women, since the awardees and presenters included such vivid actresses as Patricia Neal, Zoe Caldwell, Lauren Bacall, Eileen Atkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Judith Malina, Dana Ivey and Seldes herself.

First to be inducted was Neal, 78, who won a Tony Award on Broadway in "Another Part of the Forest" in 1947. Seldes introduced Neal by reading a long praise of her by Tennessee Williams, highlighting Neal's courage, her mix of beauty and wit and her "laugh of scotch and stale cigarette smoke from the Warner Brothers commissary."

Although the basic criteria for election to the hall of fame are at least five major theater credits over a career of at least 25 years, Neal's theater credits were all in the earlier part of her career. She began her remarks by describing the series of strokes that began when she was 39. Though she fought back to star again on TV and film, it left her "never able again to do a Broadway play -- though I wouldn't want to rule that possibility out." She thanked the hall for giving her back the theater part of her career.

Neal then read the famous speech in praise of the theater life by Fanny, the matriarch in "The Royal Family." Neal first heard it when, as a girl, she played the granddaughter, to whom the speech is addressed. But as she read the fierce, possessive words, she spoke obviously of herself, ending, "Do you suppose I could have stood these two years hobbling about on this damn cane if I didn't know I was going back [on stage]? ... That's all that's kept me alive these two years ... my life, my work, going on!"

Aubrey Reuben
Marian Seldes was master of ceremonies for the Theater Hall of Fame inductions, which honored Kevin Kline, left, and eight others.

Inducting the originators of the Living Theater, Julian Beck (1925-85) and his partner, Judith Malina, 77, was Harvey Lichtenstein, visionary producer of avant-garde works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He gave a short history of the company, which started in the 1950s as a poets' theater but became in the 1960s the great advocate of breaking down the walls between actors and audience. A true ensemble, it spent years in Europe and more years in various American cities, including a year in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and with such works as "The Connection," "The Brig" and "Paradise Now," challenged theater convention.

Malina welcomed this honor at a time when the Living Theater is returning from its latest European residency. Led by her and her husband, Hanon Reznikov, it plans to re-open later this year at a new theater on 49th Street and Ninth Avenue. She called it "a new beginning for our old question: 'What's next?'"

She recalled Beck's injunction to "go out as far as you dare -- don't hold back, reach for more." Already the Living Theater is doing "street actions" in Times Square against the death penalty. "At a time when the administration of the U.S. has challenged the culture," Malina said, "we will be the culture we all want, a culture of peace and mutual understanding."

Inducting the late Madeline Kahn (1942-2000) was her colleague from TV's "The Cosby Show," Phylicia Rashad, who invoked in her praise "all the superlatives" of the English language, of other languages and even of languages that are gone or yet to come. Kahn's Broadway career included three Tony nominations and one Tony ("The Sisters Rosensweig").

"Madeline mastered the craft of the movement of thought," said Rashad, who remembered Kahn once said to her, about the superficiality of much TV acting, that "sometimes you have to smuggle in the work." She also quoted a Kahn sentiment echoed by many others: "In TV, you earn money; in film, fame; and in theater, merit." Accepting the Hall of Fame medallion for Kahn was her husband, John Hansbury, who pointed out that Caldwell, Atkins, Bacall and Seldes were the sort of women Kahn had aspired to be.

No one is a more forceful presence than Zoe Caldwell, who arose to induct costume designer Jane Greenwood, 69. Previous speakers had bent toward the microphone; Caldwell spoke past it and made the names on the walls vibrate with conviction. But her approach was comic, describing what she called a long competition between her and Greenwood.

They had both worked in "large regional repertory companies," such as Minneapolis' Guthrie and Ontario's Stratford: "She was pretty and sexy and single, and I was pretty sexy, and single [and] we were both looking out for a fellow we could share the season with." In those big companies, she said, you'd think there'd be lots of men, "but those who weren't married or gay, you understood why." So the pickings were slim, and Greenwood "always seemed to win."

They both ended up in New York, Caldwell married to producer Robert Whitehead and Greenwood to set designer Ben Edwards, both now deceased. All four worked together, memorably on Caldwell's famous "Medea." Caldwell said that Greenwood "never gave you costumes. She gave you clothes you could fit into your character's life. And Ben gave you spaces where your character could be." Caldwell said that's why they didn't win many awards (Greenwood has no Tonys but 14 nominations) -- "You never came out whistling the sets or the costumes."

In all, Greenwood has designed 90 Broadway shows and 63 more elsewhere, along with much opera, ballet, TV and film, and she is active still. In responding, she said "Zoe was always a hard act to follow," and she acknowledged especially her late husband, "my friend, colleague and most respected critic."

To induct poet and translator Richard Wilbur, Seldes introduced Gilbert Parker, Wilbur's agent for 45 years. Parker described meeting Wilbur in 1956 on the recommendation of Lillian Hellman, with whom Wilbur worked on the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." "He looked more like a quarterback on the Iowa football team than a professor of poetry at Wellesley," Parker said. Since then, Wilbur's translations of nine Moliere plays into witty rhymed verse have made Moliere (as one critic said) "as great an English playwright as he is a French one."

Wilbur was prevented from attending by a recent injury to his wife, which made it difficult to leave their home in the Berkshires. For all his awards for poetry, Parker said, this was Wilbur's first honor from the theater community.

Given the Hall's Founders Award was Price Berkley, who for 40 years has published the invaluable weekly Theatrical Index, tracking the ins and outs of New York theater.

To induct Vanessa Redgrave, 66, Seldes introduced Eileen Atkins, who began with the famous fact that Redgrave's birth was announced from the stage of the Old Vic by Laurence Olivier, where he was playing Hamlet with her father, Michael Redgrave. Olivier then predicted she would be a great actress, "and not many of us get a review like that on our very first entrance."

That prediction has born out, of course, as Atkins demonstrated with samples of such critical praise as has been unmatched since Eleonora Duse. With her characteristically dry wit, Atkins described a youthful holiday with Redgrave when they shared "the only one, small double bed in all of Wales." Of Redgrave's famous political activism, she said, "you may think she's a nuisance, you may thing she's a heroine, but she has always put her money where her mouth is." And she blamed Redgrave for playing many roles so perfectly that she had ruined them for other actresses.

Redgrave was unable to attend because she was busy acting in Toronto, so her medallion was accepted by her sister, Lynn, a pretty fine actor herself, who read a letter of thanks.

It fell to Lauren Bacall to induct librettist Peter Stone (1930-2003), her friend "for more than 40 years, though I'm only 22." She called him "a universal man of the theater," but mostly praised him for his humor: "He filled a room, both physically and with laughter."

She said Stone was the only writer to win the triple crown -- Emmy, Oscar and Tonys ("1776," "Woman of the Year," "Titanic"). He led the Dramatists Guild for 18 years, and what's more, gave Bacall a place to spend weekends during the entire year-and-a-half run of "Applause."

Accepting for Stone was his wife, Mary, who remembered, "Peter always said his happiest moments were when he was out of town with a show in trouble."

The last inductee was Kevin Kline, 56. Inducting him, Dana Ivey recalled first seeing him "so dashing and funny and sexy" in "The Pirates of Penzance". Then she went on to play mother to his 1990 Hamlet and "ex-girlfriend" (Mistress Quickly) to his Falstaff in the recently concluded "Henry IV." She called him "one of the greatest actors of my generation."

In his sweetly modest remarks, Kline managed to bring the entire evening full circle. He remembered as a boy seeing Neal in "Hud," one of those "I want to be able to do that" turning points. In college, he remembered doing Living Theater-like plays "where we went out and touched people -- and in my own small way, I'm continuing to do that." Seldes was one of his teachers at Juilliard.

He made his first Broadway hit opposite Kahn in "On the 20th Century," where she helped him take an underwritten role and turn it into comic gold. And as one of his first costume designers, Greenwood taught him he had short legs and a long torso and should always insist on a high waist.

Kline ended by thanking his wife and two young children, all present, for putting up with a life that meant he wasn't home enough to help with homework or put them to bed. Doing "Henry IV," he called home each night, and the children would say, "Have a good show, Daddy."

Inductees, presenters, family and friends all then converged on Sardi's for a supper of toasting and reminiscence.

As produced by Terry Hodge Taylor, the Hall of Fame ceremony remains intimate, with knowing incidental piano music provided by Tony Monte, keyed to the inductees and presenters.


Post-Gazette drama critic Christopher Rawson is a member of the Hall of Fame executive committee. He can be reached at 412-263-1666 orcrawson@post-gazette.com.

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