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The Heiress - Broadway

Jessica Chastain stars in the Broadway revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's drama.

The Heiress’ Judith Ivey on Getting Naked in Steaming, Finding Laughs in The Glass Menagerie & More

The Heiress’ Judith Ivey on Getting Naked in Steaming, Finding Laughs in The Glass Menagerie & More
Judith Ivey
Judith Ivey returns to Broadway in 'The Heiress' for the first time in more than a decade.

For almost four decades, Judith Ivey has morphed into good-time gals, matriarchs, monsters and saints, showing off her range in comedy, tragedy and everything in between. No wonder this two-time Tony winner tells acting students, “I may not be a movie star, but I’ve had a really great career. It’s been an embarrassment of riches.” In the past few years, Ivey has spent almost as much time directing as acting, but she’s making a welcome return to Broadway as Jessica Chastain’s Aunt Lavinia Penniman in The Heiress. Lamenting the need to limit her Role Call selections to just six shows, Ivey offered astute assessments of favorite parts she’s played, both nude and fully clothed in period attire.

Role That Fulfilled a Lifelong Dream
“Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie [2010] is a role I waited 40 years to play. I read it aloud when I was a senior in high school in an English class taught by my mother. Something clicked, and in the years after that I would pick up the play about once a month and read a scene. I grew up in Texas with women who were not unlike Amanda, and I had great sympathy for her, even when I was 18. When [director] Gordon Edelstein offered it to me, I said, ‘I just want you to know that I think Amanda is hilarious. If that’s a surprise to you, then you shouldn’t cast me because you will be miserable working with me.’ I’ve seen many productions, and I think the biggest mistake is not to find the humor in Amanda. The tragedy of the story takes care of itself. The two elements that I thought were important—her humor and her passion to protect her children—were beautifully evident in Gordon’s production. It was one of those lifelong dreams come true.”

Role That Was My Big Break
Steaming [1982, Tony Award for Best Featured Actress] was momentous, since I won a Tony. I had absolutely no clue that would happen, because the show had closed. We used to joke that we took our clothes off and still couldn’t sell tickets! I was playing Josie, an East End Cockney who went to the public baths to get away from being beat up by whatever guy she lived with. The other characters said, ‘Get up! You’re worthy,’ so she became the spokesperson for a movement to save the baths. It was a ‘finding yourself’ story. People say, ‘You were naked the whole time!’ but actually it was about 20 minutes. Jennifer von Mayrhauser designed some of the greatest costumes I ever got to wear, including a boa coat, which I kept for years. Before Steaming, I was a rather rigid actress, but that play made me more flexible and adventurous, which was very important for the next show on my list.”

Role That Was the Most Exciting
Hurlyburly [1984; Tony Award for Best Featured Actress] was an amazing experience, and if I hadn’t changed my approach to acting, I would have been eaten alive by that group. [Ivey created her role off-Broadway with William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Jerry Stiller and Cynthia Nixon.] It was exciting, first of all because we were working with a master, [director] Mike Nichols, and David Rabe is one of our greatest playwrights. I played Bonnie, a balloon dancer that Eddie, a movie producer played by Bill Hurt, tries to pair up with Phil, played by Harvey Keitel. Phil ends up pushing her out of her own car, so she returns to Eddie’s house, and in the course of this long, intense play, she reveals that Eddie doesn’t give a crap about anybody. The play is an indictment of Hollywood, and Bonnie was one my best roles ever in terms of her impact on the story. One of my favorite memories is of defending the play to Shirley MacLaine, who was outraged by the way women were treated. I said, ‘You don’t get it: [Rabe] is not glorifying this behavior, he’s revealing it.’”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
“I’ve done quite a few one-woman plays, but Shirley Valentine [2010; Long Wharf Theatre] was the most difficult. The Liverpool accent was the hardest I’ve ever taken on, and the play is dense—there’s a lot of dialogue. I would literally sit and cry, thinking, ‘I am never going to get this.’ But in the end, it did work, and it became one of the most joyous pieces I’ve ever performed. Audiences just love it. They cheer, and it provokes a response, even though the play is not a dialogue. Shirley is so loveable. Finding that balance in how this downtrodden, isolated woman blossoms [during a vacation to Greece] was rewarding for everybody, and for me, too. It changed me in the sense that I responded to her attitude, which is don’t sit and dwell on things; get off your butt and do something.”

Role in a Play That Deserved Greater Acclaim
“I have to mention Precious Sons [1986], which started a lifelong friendship with [author] George Furth until he passed away [in 2008]. The play was based on George’s life, and it was really about kids raising kids. Ed Harris and I played a young couple; it’s the day of one son’s high school graduation and the other son’s eighth grade graduation. The older son is planning an elopement, just like we did, and the younger one, based on George, has the chance to go on the road as an actor, which the father is against. The father is ambitious for the kids and the mother is more practical. It’s set in Chicago, one of my favorite dialects, and the mother is hilarious, as George’s mother apparently was. It’s a great piece of writing that deserved more attention than it got, and I thought it was some of my best work.”

Role That Was a Special Joy
“I had a ball doing The Lady With All the Answers [2010, as advice columnist Ann Landers], a solo show that was a great tribute to that particular historic character. When you play real people, there’s the added pressure of wanting to be true to them and to depict them realistically. I did the play first in Chicago at the Northlight Theater. One of [Landers’] secretaries came to see it and almost couldn’t talk afterward. She said, ‘How did you do that? Your hands…everything was her.’ I had looked at footage, but most of it was of her sitting in a chair being interviewed; you didn’t see her moving around and animated. You kind of have to develop a sixth sense for the character, so it was thrilling that someone who actually worked with her said I got it right.”

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