There’s never a dull patch when dining with Elizabeth Ashley. “I’ve already ordered two mojitos for myself,” she informs Jean-Claude Baker, the unflappable owner of Chez Josephine on Theater Row, “but do you have that cold asparagus soup?” Indeed he does, and soon our outdoor bistro table is covered with drinks and bowls of soup, pasta and homemade cheese puffs, a favorite snack of the actress’ beloved pug, Che Guevara. Speaking just before the start of previews for the New York premiere of Me, Myself & I at Playwrights Horizons (opening night is September 12), Ashley’s got post-rehearsal jitters over the demands of Edward Albee’s intricate dialogue. As Mother, the latest in Albee’s canon of not-so-lovable matriarchs, Ashley must engage in complicated comic wordplay with the mysterious doctor who shares her bed (Brian Murray); her symbolically named twin sons, OTTO and otto; and otto’s fiancée. Since her scene-stealing performance in Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, Ashley has jumped to August: Osage County, a D.C. production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and now “antics with semantics,” as critic Ben Brantley called Me, Myself & I in its 2008 premiere at the McCarter Theatre (starring Tyne Daly and Murray). Two years ago, Ashley gave Broadway.com an in-depth interview about her life and career. Now she offers an astute assessment of her current role and why she's challenging herself anew at age 71.
Are you excited about starring in a new play by Edward Albee?
Darling, when you are my age, which is 71, “excited” you do not get. You have moments that could be called an epiphany, but mostly it’s like being in Iraq. And not in the Green Zone. It’s like I’m a sergeant, and I have to get the vehicles and the baggage from one end of Baghdad to the other. The baggage I’m talking about isn’t the other people in the play, it’s me: my brain, my heart, my soul, the shreds of what was once me. I have to get that from point A to point B, and there are land mines. But that’s the case with any play you do, right?
Albee’s language in this play presents plenty of land mines.
The language is extraordinary and keeps revealing itself to me more and more and more. This play is completely about the language. I’ve been doing this [stage acting] for 53 years now; I’ve mostly done stories, and my process of working is to find my character’s stream of consciousness from moment to moment in the play. I’ve never done any Beckett. I’ve never done any of the absurdists. I haven’t done any Pirandello or Ionesco since drama school, OK? So this is completely new to me, and most of the time I feel like an unworthy amateur.
You’re well known for performing Tennessee Williams. Have you done other Albee plays?
The only Albee I’ve ever done was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Florida with Frank Converse [at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1996]. Edward had a house down in Florida, and he wanted it done. Angelica Torn was the best Honey I’ve ever seen in my life. That play is so true in its perceptions of human nature turned inside out and stripped raw. Your visceral self just gets it in Virginia Woolf. But this play is like a concerto without the actual music. The music is in the lyrics.
Did you see the premiere production of Me, Myself & I in Princeton?
No. It was done with Tyne Daly, and I can’t imagine anybody better for this than Tyne. She is not only a friend and a colleague, she’s a brilliant actress that I utterly admire and respect. But that was a couple of years ago and she had other things to do, or whatever. The script that I read [originally] and the one we went into rehearsal with are quite different. It’s tighter, it’s clearer, it’s more concise now. It’s also very, very difficult. People joke that Edward will say in rehearsal, “I didn’t hear the comma.” You never play fast and loose with an Albee line. It’s like Shakespeare or Giraudoux. I did The Enchanted, and so much of that is wordplay. It’s onomatopoeic—the sounds tell you the story.
What do you love about Me, Myself & I?
I love that it takes the myth of childhood and parenthood and turns it inside out. It’s like if you shot a deer, gutted it, skinned it, and said, “OK, not only do you have to eat this, you have to look at it, smell it and find the funny in it.” It’s a very heretical view of motherhood. As much as I absolutely love and adore my son [Christian Peppard, from Ashley’s marriage to the late George Peppard]—the demon seed, as he is affectionately known to me— the popular myths of motherhood are overrated.
The play certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the mother/child bond.
I think children pay the price for the myths of motherhood. As much as we love our children [she assumes a deep, growling voice], we haaate them. As much as they love us, they haaate us. We are the closest enemy. And we are each other, so consequently, every self-destructive step we take, consciously or unconsciously, we do to the other. I love all of that in the play. It’s such a cauldron. It’s like going down the vortex into a quagmire of the unspeakable. I love that! It’s shocking. And yet it’s also slapstick; it’s vaudeville. Da da da! Rim shot.
What is Albee really like?
I’m told by those who know him well that he’s a transformed man. First of all, he looks 25 or 30 years younger than he is . When I did Virginia Woolf, he was supportive, pleased and very specific about what he did not want. Edward will never fluff you. Edward is never going to come in like every other asshole in the world and say, “Darling, you were wonderful!” He has more respect for you than that.
His writing seems so up-to-date—not only this play, but also his classics.
Albee is so rare in a generational sense. It’s probably presumptuous of me to say this, but I think Edward is a humanist. As you take this play apart, it’s about the struggle all of us have to find the selves in ourselves—who are you, really? It’s also about the carnage we commit on ourselves to try to live together and not be at war with each other. Edward is a great artist, somebody who has not only changed and defined theater of the 20th and the 21st century but has championed the oppressed and defended the defiled against the establishment. I go into this humbly, because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the reason it’s so difficult is because it’s so fine.
Was turning 70 a big deal for you?
No. I always figured I’d be at my best when I was old and no longer had to sell myself, pretend to be anything I wasn’t or make other people comfortable with me.
You jumped directly from Mrs. Warren’s Profession in Washington to rehearsals for this play. How do you keep up your stamina?
It’s more manic energy than stamina. I get really tired now, which I never used to. But people who know me think that’s a very good thing. A tired me is a better me [laughs].
It seems like you’re busier now than you’ve ever been.
I don’t have a choice! I’ve been vastly underpaid my entire life. I have to work to pay the rent. But seriously, I’ve had the privilege to do so many of the great playwrights—Tennessee [Williams] and Horton [Foote]. I’ve worked with [directors] Mike Nichols and George Abbott and Michael Wilson. And at my age, after all these years, to get to do a new play by Edward Albee? It’s a little like being kissed on the butt by God.