March 28, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
March birthdays continue with today’s being that of Dianne Wiest. Who doesn’t remember her two brilliant turns in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994)? Not only was she completely different in those roles (introvert/extrovert) but for each one she received Academy Awards, directed in both by the same person (Woody Allen), making her the only actress ever to have done so. But Wiest distinguishes herself in almost everything she does, which includes dozens of movies and television shows, like her Emmy winning role in HBO’s In Treatment and a two-year stint on the mothership Law & Order series. However, her roots are in the theatre which is where her career began. And though she may have only appeared in eight Broadway shows over the past forty years, she has been in almost three times that number Off-Broadway.
I first saw her as Desdemona opposite James Earl Jones’s Othello on Broadway in February of 1982. Unfortunately, that production was hijacked by Christopher Plummer’s scene-stealing Iago, one of the greatest Shakespearean performances I’ve ever seen. Wiest more than held her own with those two heavyweights, but left the show before it closed in April of that year in order to star in what many expected to be a big hit — Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy. Having premiered the previous year Off-Broadway and gotten great reviews, it seemed like it was a no-brainer that the play would repeat its success in a larger theatre. I saw that first production, which starred Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Collins and I wept from laughing so hard. It was directed by Jerry Zaks, who a year earlier had directed Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in a sensational production that launched him from a mere working actor to one of the most in-demand directors in New York.
But for some reason, Zaks was not chosen to re-direct the Broadway production. John Madden, a Brit who had done a beautiful job with Jules Feiffer’s Grown-Ups on Broadway the previous season, was handed this plum assignment. Madden eventually would direct Shakespeare In Love, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1998, but no roses were tossed on stage at the curtain call for Beyond Therapy on its opening night. I know, because I was there. And I knew the show was in trouble almost from the first scene, which featured Wiest and her co-star John Lithgow in the roles Weaver and Collins had played. The rhythms were off and Lithgow was working too hard for the laughs. It closed after 21 performances and Wiest didn’t return to Broadway for 11 years.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Wiest was a dancer from early childhood, but the temptation to act while a student at the University of Maryland had her hang up her ballet slippers for good. She delved into theatre and upon graduation began working at some of the most prestigious regional theatres in the country, among them the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where she stayed in the company for three years. Her dedication to theatre still takes her to regional theatres all the time, even though she works constantly in film and television.
I missed Wiest’s last Broadway performance (again opposite Lithgow) in the 2008 revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, but recently I have been fortunate enough to catch her in two shows, one of which I went out of my way to see in New Haven. The first was Joel Drake Johnson’s Rashida Speaking, which played the Signature Theatre in late 2015. Her co-star was the marvelous Tonya Pinkins, and as directed by Cynthia Nixon, each gave two of the best performances that season. Playing a woman who was baldly duplicitous, stabbing in the front rather than the back, Wiest managed it all with a smile that made the character eminently watchable and totally unbearable at the same time. Not every actor can do that.
Then last May, my journey to the the Yale Rep afforded me the chance to see Wiest play Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, a virtual monologue.
In Beckett’s existential comedy-drama, as a woman buried up to her waist in sand, Wiest brought a sunny disposition to the babbling eternal optimism that spouts from Winnie in the course of the play. In the second scene, when she is buried to her neck, the challenges for any actor in this role becomes quickly evident. Wiest, using the musicality of her voice to convey every emotion that flickered, made the role painfully poignant, never resorting to the banality of mere pathos.
Wiest has been in Los Angeles working for the past two seasons on the CBS-TV series Life in Pieces, in which she co-stars with James Brolin as the parents of a dysfunctional family. Nearing seventy, it’s got to be nice to have the steady paycheck a series brings, but hopefully a return to the New York stage is in the offering even as I write this, so that it won’t be long before we have her back … where she belongs.
Happy Birthday, Dianne Wiest.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/