Olympia Dukakis Likes Her Familiar Roles, Especially on Stage

NEW YORK (AP) – The 79-year-old Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis has a tendency to return again and again to the same plays and the same roles. By her count, she’s done Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night three or four times, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children four times, Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo five times, Euripides’ Hecuba three times, and several Chekhov plays “a bunch of times.” “I love to go back to plays over and over again,” she says while taking a lunch break from rehearsing her latest project, an off-Broadway production of Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. “You go back and there are new things that come up and other things that percolated and cooked,” Dukakis says. “You get into it a little bit differently, in some ways deeper.”{33445}
Dukakis plays Flora Goforth, a fearsome but gloriously wealthy ill American who has buried four husbands and retired to an Italian villa high atop a mountain to furiously write her memoirs before she dies. Her work is interrupted by a mysterious, hunky younger man who offers his company in exchange for refuge. “In spite of the fact of her being a monster so to speak, there’s something so human about her that we all can connect to,” says Dukakis. “None of us want to be defeated by age. We all want to feel passion in our lives.” And, yes, she’s done the play before, too.
The Massachusetts-born actress first played the challenging role in 1996 at the Williamstown Theater Festival and reprised it in 2008 at Hartford Stage under the direction of Michael Wilson. The Roundabout Theatre Company has brought both Wilson and Dukakis to its Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street. “She has dared to put the full force of her being and talent into this role,” says Wilson of his star. “In order to do this, I think Olympia has had to throw vanity out the window, which she is not afraid to do. Not all actors of her stature and success and beauty are willing to do this.” Considered to be a minor work from a playwright already on the decline, Milk Train has been largely overlooked in the Williams’ cannon. This production, part of a celebration commemorating the centennial of the playwright’s birth, proves that even his lesser plays can be lyrically powerful.
“Sometimes it annoys critics that these plays are done,” says Dukakis, visibly exhausted and picking at a turkey burger. “Sometimes they feel that it’s dated. I can’t see how this play is dated at all.” Milk Train had a somewhat cursed life on Broadway. It opened on Jan. 16, 1963, during a newspaper strike — meaning no advertising or reviews — and closed after just 69 performances. Williams revised his script and it opened again the following January, starring Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter. It only lasted five performances. A film version was made called Boom! in 1968 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which Dukakis dismisses as “stunning in its obtuseness.” Dukakis is very familiar with Williams, having been in productions of his A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Glass Menagerie and The Night of the Iguana, in addition to her five times aboard The Rose Tattoo. “I’m drawn to him because it feels like there’s a truth that I understand and live with which is in the plays. I can be honest,” she says. “It’s the honesty he keeps finding, the truth he keeps finding.”
Dukakis’ career has been steady and rewarding, highlighted by roles such as Clairee in Steel Magnolias, the TV miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and her Oscar-winning turn as Cher’s sardonic mother in Moonstruck. For almost two decades she also ran her own theater company with her husband of 48 years, actor Louis Zorich, while the couple raised their three children. She isn’t slowing down, either, despite her 80th birthday coming up this summer. After Milk Train ends in April, there’s a movie and then she’s booked to be in Morris Panych’s Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in November. In between, she’s set to perform Rose in July at the birthplace of her parents when she attends the International Festival of the Aegean in Greece in mid-July.
And, yes, she’s done that play before, too. The one-woman Rose, written by Jewish-American playwright Martin Sherman, is essentially a two-hour monologue by an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor. Dukakis has played it in London and on Broadway in 2000, among other places. Even though she’s intimately connected to the piece and has memorized it before in what critics called a tour de force, for the upcoming Greek production she’ll keep referring to the 67-page script on stage — she’s a little out of practice to do it off-book. “I’d have to be doing it every week,” she says. “And I’d shoot somebody.”


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