Longtime Rocklander returns to Broadway after a decade away
Ellen Burstyn likes to keep sharp.
“I exercise my memory at every opportunity,” says the newly-minted 80-year-old, calling from her car on a ride from her Rockland home to Broadway’s American Airlines Theater for another performance of William Inge’s “Picnic,” directed by Sam Gold. “If I’m not doing a play, I’m memorizing a poem.”
Among her favorite poets is contemporary American poet Mary Oliver.
“She’s just brilliant,” Burstyn says. “She’s won just about every major poetry prize. I don’t think she’s been poet laureate yet, but she should be.”
Oliver starts her day on Cape Cod with a walk everyday, the actress says. “She starts with what she sees in nature and goes from there to the universal.”
Burstyn is returning to Broadway as part of a wave of octogenarian actresses treading the boards in New York this season: Chita Rivera, who turns 80 tomorrow Jan. 23, is in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”; and New Rochelle’s Frances Sternhagen, who is 83, will be seen opposite Edie Falco in “The Madrid” Off-Broadway with previews beginning Feb. 5.
Burstyn was last on Broadway in the ill-fated “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” which opened and closed on Nov. 17, 2003.
In “Picnic,” she plays Helen Potts, a woman who lives under the thumb of her domineering mother.
“I’m enjoying her very much,” Burstyn says of the character she plays. “She’s such a benign character, so forgiving.”
There’s a lot to forgive. Helen’s unseen mother, who barks commands from an upstairs window, is described as “too mean for an old lady’s home.”
Long before the action of the play, when Helen married a man who didn’t meet her mother’s expectations, the mother had the marriage annulled, devastating Helen and, Burstyn says, arresting her development.
It’s a relationship with parallels in playwright William Inge’s life.
“Inge said that he identified with Helen Potts more than any other character,” Burstyn says. “All of the other characters are all different aspects of him, but Helen Potts was the one he identified with the most. I can see why. Inge was a homosexual at a time when it wasn’t so easy to admit that. And he didn’t, because of his mother. He didn’t want to disappoint his mother. So she kind of held him captive all of his life, the way my mother, in the play, holds me captive. That’s the aspect of Inge that was forever thwarted.”
When she began work on “Picnic,” Burstyn had a request for costume designer David Zinn, a request that captured her character.
“I wanted her to wear Oxfords and little anklets and the wonderful wardrobe man bought new ones and then broke them down so they look really worn.”
The well-worn shoes make the woman, lending Helen the look of a little girl from another time, a woman of advanced years who lingers in the yard she shares with her neighbor Flo (Mare Winningham, in her Broadway debut) to feed on the vitality of Flo’s young daughters, Madge (Maggie Grace) and Millie (Madeleine Martin).
Things on this Kansas Labor Day, the day of the big picnic, are still.
Too still, Helen says.
“I’d welcome a good cyclone,” she says.
Ellen Burstyn, background (as Helen Potts), watches with delight as Sebastian Stan (as Hal) dances with Maggie Grace (as Madge) in “Picnic.” Photos by Joan Marcus.
And they get one, in the form of Hal, a handsome drifter (Sebastian Stan) whom Helen hires to do some chores. Before long, Hal catches the eye of Flo’s elder daughter, Madge, who abandons long-held plans of marrying the country-club scion of one of the town fathers.
“Helen didn’t have the revolutionary spirit that Madge has to go against her mother,” Burstyn says. “I think that’s why she’s so happy when she sees Madge do it. For me, it’s like a rewriting of Helen’s story with a better outcome.”
While the actress doesn’t think her character had any idea that hiring a hunky handyman would have such an impact on the lives next door, she says: “She tells Flo ‘I think we plan picnics so that something thrilling and romantic can happen.’ I think there is, in her, a desire to have male energy in the house, but also to bring a new element into their lives, which are pretty simple.”
There are good-byes in this show and they weigh heavily on Helen.
Burstyn watches these scenes through tear-filled eyes.
“I’ve trained myself to not squelch my feelings,” she says. “Part of my training is to be open to what’s happening inside and let it be expressed.”
So if tears are meant to come to Helen, they come.
Whether mother likes it or not.
William Inge’s “Picnic,” American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. A limited engagement through Feb. 24. $42 to $127. 212-719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org.