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  • The Mint Theater Company has a delectable summer treat for theatergoers: Through August 29th, Tony Award winners Frances Sternhagen and Richard Easton are appearing in Echoes of the War, a 90-minute double bill by J. M. Barrie.

    Miss Sternhagen stars as The Old Lady Shows Her Medals with, not surprisingly, one of the most endering performances of the year and certainly one that will be remembered as one of the best of this theater season. The cast features three stage veterans: Mary Ellen Ashley, Katharine McGrath and Pat Nesbit and the consideral talents of newcomer Gareth Saxe.

    Most recently, she had audiences enraptured with her solo turn in Waiting For the Telegram in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads cannon of one-acts. For her performance, she received an Outer Critics Circle Award. If her one-act had been added to the program during the period critics were originally invited in [instead of after the series was well started], her performance would have at least received other recognition.

    Easton, who has a cameo in The Old Lady..., headlines The New Word, a short but sweet piece about father/son bonding. Though he leaped to stardom, and Tony and Drama Desk Awards, in 2001 in Tom Stoppard's Tony-winning The Invention of Love, he's been trodding the boards for some time. He appeared with Miss Sternhagen in 1960 at Princeton's McCarter, playing John Worthing to her Gwendolyn, in The Importance of Being Earnest. Most recently, he was seen at Lincoln Center in the title role in Henry IV, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme and Stoppards's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Before that he had audiences rolling in the aisles in the Tony-winning revival of Noises Off.

    Barrie, of course, is most famous for Peter Pan, probably the greatest family play ever written. The irony of that fame has prevented him from being taken seriously as a major dramatist. Except by the Mint, which has a celebrated reputation for excavating such worthy but neglected treasures. Recent work was nominated for a Drama Desk Award and the company has received an Obie Award grant.

    The plays were published in 1917 and received critical acclaim. The director of this first revival is Eleanor Reissa, Tony-nominated for her direction of the 1990 Yiddish revue Those Were The Days, which she also choreographed and appeared in [opposite Bruce Adler and Mina Bern].

    The Old LadyÖ is considered to be one of the finest examples of a one-act play. It explores with humor what happens when a lady, a lonely London charwoman, who lies about having a son in the war to end all wars has to face the consequences of her invention when she comes face to face with that "son."

    The respected critic Alexander Woollcott, writing in 1917 in The New York Times described The Old LadyÖ as "an appeal to every heart in the houseÖit is touching and true and pure Barrie from beginning to end."

    Theatre Hall of Famer Sternhagen was bitten by the acting bug at age 13 when she tired of piano lessons while growing up in Washington, D.C. "I became much more interested in drama," she says, "but I never expected to do anything professional." In fact, expectations were quite low. "Father had to retire," recalled Miss Sternhagen. "He couldn't work because he had what came to be known as Parkinson's Disease. He went through thirteen years of treatments and hospitals and nothing worked. My mother had to take little jobs. For a while, she taught remedial reading. There was no money for college."

    Thanks to family friends who had no children of their own, she was able to go to boarding school at [Virginia's prestigious] Madeira, where she not only acted but also directed. When she qualified for and was accepted at Vassar, the family friends once again came to the rescue.

    "At Vassar, I had wonderful teachers," says Miss Sternhagen, "and it was there that I first sensed what acting really was." She knew how to command a stage - even if it was in the dining hall. To interest more students in drama, she was asked to do a scene from Richard II. As she played Richard, there was a chorus of giggles. "I took control by grabbing my mirror and hurling it to the floor. It broke into a million pieces and you could hear a pin drop. That alone, got me elected head of the Drama Club!"

    Vassar helped Miss Sternhagen hone the unique voice that has made her an attention-getter. She told an interviewer: "Some of the [Madeira] students were people I really wouldn't have much to do with in my life because they were very wealthy. Some were very sophisticated, at least to my way of thinking. A few of them had what I call that Groton/Harvard accent. I saw at Vassar, too."

    She developed a theater voice that was nicknamed "the lockjaw." Early on she used it in a television show with Ann Jackson and Eli Wallach. "I was playing a babysitter and I said with that accent, ëI gave the bady a pacifier,' and Annie and Eli just found that hilarious. I did the same sort of thing in The Importance of Being Earnest in Princeton at the McCarter with Ellis Rabb and Rosemary Harris. I developed a Mayfair accent because of one word. Jack says, ëDo you love me, Gwendolyn?' And I said, ëPassionately.' The word ëpassionately' just gave me the clue to the character. Just perfectly."

    In her late teens, Miss Sternhagen made her professional stage debut as the 30ish Laura in a 1948 stock production of The Glass Menagerie. After graduation, she attended the Perry-Mansfield Theater School and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Back in Washington, she taught acting, singing and dancing. With theater still as her goal, she attempted to get work in Boston but was rejected. She returned home, only to find more rejection. However, she found acceptance at Catholic University in their theater programs and was eventually asked to join Arena Stage. In 1954, making her Off-Broadway debut as Juliette in Girardoux' Thieves' Carnival, which was later televised.

    "That was one of the last times I'd play an ingÈnue!" smiles Miss Sternhagen. "I don't know why, but I was often cast in older roles. It was probably partly due to my voice, but I also had an understanding of older people, which stemmed from being around mostly older people in my childhood. They were funny and eccentric and I must have absorbed some of that."

    She says that live TV, "when it was really live, was a great training ground. I miss those times. They were exciting. It was intense and crazy. It was live and you couldn't correct a mistake."

    Miss Sternhagen said that she had wonderful parts in her 20s and 30s, but that it wasn't until she was in her 40s that she realized she'd made it to that plateau where she could make a living as an actress and do what she wanted to do. She says she never felt the urge to hone her skills as a director. "I've worked with wonderful directors and I don't have that kind of mind that has a concept of how a performance should be developed."

    She received the 1973 Tony Award for her multiple characterizations in Neil Simon's Good Doctor. She followed with two of her favorite stage roles: Dora Strang in Equus [1974] and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond [1979]. In 1995, opposite Cherry Jones in The Heiress, Miss Sternhagen received her second Tony.

    After acting almost non-stop through the years onstage and in film, it was TV that made Miss Sternhagen "a household face, if not exactly a household name" in recurring roles on three hit series that are indelibly printed in the minds of TV fans: steely, domineering Ester Clavin of Cheers; Millicent "Gamma" Carter on E.R.; and steely, domineering Bunny McDougal of Sex and the City.

    Miss Sternhagen has been blessed to be in that one percentile of actors who've been able to effortlessly go from stage to film to TV. "All that work came about as a result of someone seeing me onstage in something or the other." So it wasn't just having a great agent? "Agents can be very helpful after you're established in negotiating better deals for you and also at the beginning of your career by helping to put you in places where you can be seen. I've had good agents, but, too often, I've seen where an agent can push you too high and then, if you don't get a certain role, your career flattens out."

    She's appeared in 25 plays on Broadway alone, and numerous Off Broadway productions. It wasn't always easy. Married to Broadway actor Thomas Carlin, the couple had six children. "Juggling career and family was very difficult." Adding to that, her late husband had problems that led to alcoholism. "Thomas was quite handsome and started as a very promising juvenile," says Miss Sternhagen, "but as he got older, directors didn't know how to cast him. That added to his unhappiness and he drank more. They preyed on each other. It was sad and affected the family. Not becoming a star shouldn't bother people in our business so much. Just so you're working!

    "Though I loved my husband very much and we were very close, there were times when I was so grateful to go off to work even though I had to leave the kids with a sitter and wonder what was going to happen when I left. I felt so guilty going off when I knew things were not exactly fun at home. But going off to a world of creativity and imagination, helped insulate me from a lot of turmoil."

    Among her regrets is that she never got to do more Chekhov. "But I can't complain," Miss Sternhagen says. "I'm doing what I love. I simply love acting! It's you who's out there, but you are creating another world and other people. As long as even one person in your audience is reached by your gift, you've accomplished your purpose."

    Asked to name her favorite role, Miss Sternhagen says, "There are so many. It's a long list. I always say, ëMy next role is my favorite!' Not to mention the one I'm doing now."

    The Mint is on the fifth floor of 311 West 43rd Street, just West of Eighth Avenue. Tickets for Echoes of the War are $45 and available by calling (212) 315-0231 or online at http://www.minttheater.org/.


Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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