Estelle Parsons stars in Arena premiere
The Academy Award-winning star is getting ready to go to the theater, and she is fretting about clothes. But this is not about a red-carpet appearance, and she’s not concerned about how she looks.
This is the dilemma of a working actor who is trying to find the essence of a character, and part of that search involves wardrobe. What the character wears onstage will tell the audience a lot about who she is, and it’s not a decision to be lightly made.
The star is Estelle Parsons, a working actor at age 85. It’s been 46 years since she rocketed to international acclaim and took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1967, as Blanche Barrow in the milestone film Bonnie and Clyde.
She’s in Washington for The Velocity of Autumn, a new two-person play running Sept. 6 through Oct. 20 at Arena Stage. Parsons plays 79-year old Alexandra, resident of a Brooklyn brownstone who is grappling with faltering senses.
Alexandra has barricaded herself in her apartment rather than submit to her children’s demands that she move into a nursing home. And she has also managed to place enough improvised bombs in the place to blow up the block.
It’s a play director Molly Smith describes as “extraordinarily funny.”
On this August day, several weeks into rehearsals, Parsons is concerned about a looming appointment with the show’s costume designer.
“We have to have a costume-fitting this week, and it’s just terrible because I have no sense of Alexandra, what she looks like, what she wears,” Parsons said. “I showed some clothes to my daughter and asked what she thought, and she said, ‘Oh, those are all wrong!’” And she sighs, sounding exhausted.
Of course, playwright Eric Coble and director Smith would disagree vehemently about Parson’s grasp of the character. Coble has stated he saw her in the role as he was writing it.
He has been at Arena during rehearsals, sharpening scenes based on the work of Parsons and co-star Stephen Spinella, the two-time Tony Award winner who plays Alexandra’s long-distant son who is sent to extricate her from the brownstone.
And Smith says of her star, “She looks under every rock, in terms of character. She is always searching, always digging. Every day, every moment, she’s coming up with something new. She is the consummate actor.”
Early search for a career
The journey to Arena Stage has been a long and varied one for Parsons. While she considers herself fully a creature of the stage, she is most famous in popular culture for her relatively few film roles and occasional high-profile TV work, ranging from her regular role as the star’s mother on Roseanne, to last spring’s season finale of The Good Wife.
Few probably know that Parsons has always dreamed of being a blues singer, went to law school for a year, and was the youngest person ever elected to public office in her home town of Marblehead, Mass. That ended when a brief trip to New York resulted in a job as a writer and on-air personality for five years at NBC, including a stint on the early Today program.
“I was on my way to being Barbara Walters, who actually took my job when I left. But I didn’t like it; it was just my day job. I hated interviewing people,” Parsons said.
So she took time off to raise her twin girls, one of whom, Martha, is with her in D.C., “shadowing” Molly Smith and getting tips on directing.
Parsons made her stage debut in 1961. Bonnie and Clyde was only her second movie.
“I had never wanted to do movies,” Parsons explained. “Arthur Penn, who I was working with in theater, just changed my view of theater and what could be accomplished in the theater. So he was directing that movie, and he gave the part to me.” She was paired with Gene Hackman, another New York theater friend.
She describes the occasional film or TV work as a “vacation” from theater. “I’m not interested in that world. It put my kids through college, but my real interest is in the theater. I seem to be free in the theater. I’m very inhibited in real life.”
Inhibited? The last time Estelle Parsons was in Washington, she electrified Kennedy Center audiences as the venomous, family-shredding Violet in August: Osage County, a role she indelibly originated on Broadway. So how does this “inhibited” and charming person find her dark side?
“But those are other people, they’re not me,” she protested. She is asked, “But where do you find them, if they’re not within you?” “Oh, yeah,” she conceded. “Must be in there somewhere. I’m always finding things in me coming out on stage, and I wonder, good God, where did that come from?”
Fighting loss of control
Molly Smith said The Velocity of Autumn resonates because the way we grapple with losing control over our lives as we age is a nearly universal experience. “It’s all about control,” she explained. “At what time in our lives do we lose that?”
Parsons may be dealing with this issue on stage now, but she has also confronted it in real life. “You have control in your life, and then it starts to shift,” she said. “The culture wants to move you out of control, which is what happens in the play.
“The kids think that they’re in charge. My twin daughters are in their 50s, and I remember going to a restaurant with them in California. And when the check came, the guy gave it to the kids. This guy was saying, ‘You’re going to pay for your mother, right?’ But I was the one with the money. That began to happen over and over.
“The culture makes you old, and you have to fight it every day. And that’s in the play, too. She has lost herself. She’s just not the person she was, and she realizes it.”
Parsons says she loves this play, despite the challenge of being onstage with only one other actor for the full 90-minutes. It seems to mix poignancy with humor, often black humor, as it deals with its serious subject.
Smith and Parsons both stress that it is not grim. “It’s a comedy. Stephen’s funny, I’m funny, the playwright’s funny,” Parsons insisted. “These are really feisty people.”
Parsons is playfully feisty herself. And it’s hard to imagine this steel-willed, vigorous woman losing control. Smith marvels at how, when she took her star to a public D.C. swimming pool, she vigorously swam laps.
As we spoke, Parsons was looking forward to the end of rehearsals, so she could spend her non-matinee afternoons haunting Washington’s museums and working out in a gym she joined here. “I’m a gym rat, really healthy. I work out all the time,” she said.
At 85, she still loves touring the country, even though she misses being in New York right now during what is an exciting time for her family. Husband Peter Zimroth, 70, a prominent New York attorney, has been appointed as a federal watchdog to oversee how New York City deals with a recent court ruling curbing the controversial “stop and frisk” program.
“I said, listen Peter, never mind being that monitor. If you can spend 40 years with me, somebody in the theater, you know you can handle the New York City Police Department.”
To see the show
The Velocity of Autumnruns Sept. 6 through Oct. 20 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Showtimes are Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Noon matinees are scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 8, Wednesday, Oct. 9 and Wednesday, Oct. 16. A panel discussion follows the Sunday matinee performance on Oct. 7.
Open-captioned performances are scheduled for Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. An audio-described performance will occur Oct. 5 at 2 p.m., and there will be post-show discussions after the 7:30 p.m. show on Sept. 24, on Oct. 3 after the 8 p.m. show, and Oct. 8, 9, & 16 after the noon matinees.
Tickets range from $40 to $90 and may be purchased online at www.arenastage.org, by telephone at (202) 488-3300, or at the theater’s sales office, Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
A limited number of half-price HOTTIX tickets are sold, subject to availability, 30 minutes before curtain. HOTTIX must be purchased in person at the sales office. Limit of two per person.
Limited handicapped parking is available in the Mead Center garage by reservation 24 hours before each performance. Arena Stage offers valet service at no additional cost to patrons with accessibility needs who call (202) 488-3300 in advance. Accessible seating is available, and there are accessible entrances to the building.
For more information, visit www.arenastage.org or call (202) 488-3300 (TTY: 202-484-0247).