When it comes to multitasking, the ladies of The Heiress set a high bar. Star Jessica Chastain is juggling her leading role as Catherine Sloper with promotional duties for the Oscar-buzz film drama Zero Dark Thirty. Meanwhile, Judith Ivey, acclaimed for her smart performance as Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, has two directing projects in the works: a Spring 2013 Broadway mounting of Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest and a 25th anniversary reading of Steel Magnolias on December 3 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, a benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“It’s a lot!” Ivey says of her busy schedule. “But Steel Magnolias is one of my favorite plays. I directed it at the Alley Theater in 2005, and that experience made me want to be a director more than any other play I’ve worked on.” Robert Harling was so impressed with the two-time Tony winner's Houston production, he suggested she direct the benefit, featuring a cast that includes Ivey’s former Follies co-star Blythe Danner as Clairee, Jan Maxwell as M'Lynn, Annie Potts as Truvy, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Shelby, Margo Martindale as Ouiser and Sarah Stiles as Annelle. "It doesn't get any better than the playwright asking for you," Ivey says.
After The Heiress ends, Ivey will move directly into guiding Amber Tamblyn toward a Broadway debut in The Miss Firecracker Contest, a breakout off-Broadway role for Holly Hunter in 1984. The play centers on Carnelle, a Mississippi orphan who plots to redeem her reputation by entering the title beauty pageant. “It’s about a young woman finding herself, and we don’t have nearly enough plays about young women—and even less about old women,” Ivey says with a laugh. “Like Steel Magnolias, it’s very funny, with wonderful characters. Beth Henley and Robert Harling don’t write stereotypes—they write very specific people, which is far more interesting to watch on stage than a whitewash of a human being.”
Ivey stresses that finding the funny is important in every piece she works on, even the semi-tragic Heiress. “The amount of humor we have all found in the play is remarkable, and we keep that light touch until the story has to go to a dark place.” As for her multitasking co-star Jessica Chastain, Ivey says approvingly, “She gets up and comes to work like everybody else—although, needless to say, I’m not doing a photo shoot for Marie Claire!"
For more on Judith Ivey’s four-decade acting career, click here.