"I'm so tickled to be a part of this company," Pitoniak says a few minutes later, relaxing in her cozy dressing room while the show's publicist heads out to fetch the actress a bagel and chicken noodle soup for supper. Slowed by rheumatoid arthritis, Pitoniak has nevertheless enjoyed a busy year, playing Dame Judi Dench's querulous mom in Amy's View, Kathleen Chalfant's mentor in the Los Angeles production of Wit, and now Marina in the Roundabout's Uncle Vanya, which begins previews this week and opens April 30.
"I turned 78 yesterday," she announces, "and I'm so happy that there are parts like this around, because if I were not doing this, I would have to manufacture some way of keeping active and busy. This is like an aerobic exercise that helps you keep going and going and going."
Flashing a radiant smile, Pitoniak adds that she has felt a fresh burst of enthusiasm for acting since Amy's View. "I was very excited when I heard about this production, because I'd had a wonderful experience working with Judi Dench and Samantha Bond. This seemed like a continuation of that cross-pollination between British and American actors--like being part of some kind of globalization."
The charming Pitoniak has already bonded with her current British-born co-stars. "Derek Jacobi is a dear man, and so is Roger. You'll love them in this play! Roger is such a giver in every way, and yet there's something vulnerable about him." Laughing, she shares Rees' cheeky inscription on her birthday card. "Olga Knipper was Chekhov's wife," she explains, "and Roger wrote, 'I'd unlock my zipper, for you're far lovelier than Olga Knipper.' "
Best known for her heartbreaking performance opposite Kathy Bates in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, Pitoniak has done her share of Chekhov over the years. She had small roles in an "extremely spare" version of The Three Sisters directed by Andrei Serban at the American Repertory Theatre and a more traditional, starry production at Williamstown (with Christopher Walken, Amy Irving, Kate Burton, and Stephen Collins). The troubled extended family in Uncle Vanya earns a rueful chuckle from the actress. "They mean well, but they just can't grasp life," she says. "I think we all feel that at various times--that life is slipping away from us and we don't know what to do about it."
In Pitoniak's case, age has never been a barrier to a fruitful professional life. In fact, she didn't even get going as an actress until after the much-dreaded age of 50. A veteran (literally) of USO shows during World War II after graduation from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, Pitoniak took a 25-year career hiatus to raise her son and daughter. "I didn't want to be gone for six weeks at a time, which is what you had to do in theater then," she recalls. "I didn't know how to combine [work and family], though plenty of people do it now."
In the mid-'70s, with her kids grown and her marriage over, Pitoniak began studying acting again, which led to an audition for Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Her first job in what became a five-year residency in Louisville was in Marsha Norman's debut drama, Getting Out. "It was a turning point in my life," she says now, praising in particular the performance of the late Susan Kingsley as the feisty ex-convict, Arlene. A few years later, Norman presented Pitoniak with a rare gift: the title role in 'night, Mother.
"The producers, who were very classy people, asked Kathy and me to do the play in New York even before we opened out of town in Cambridge," she recalls, still sounding surprised that big-name stars weren't enlisted for the Broadway opening of a two-person play that ends in suicide. Bates and Pitoniak earned Tony nominations, but lost to Jessica Tandy in Foxfire (Pitoniak's other nomination came in 1994 for her supporting role in the Roundabout's Picnic); 'night, Mother won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, but lost the Best Play Tony to Torch Song Trilogy.
"Kathy and I never fooled ourselves that we were changing anybody's life," Pitoniak says now, "but we felt good about bringing up a subject that was so prevalent in many people's lives. I felt the same way about Keely and Du [by the pseudonymous playwright Jane Martin, produced in Louisville and at the Hartford Stage], which looked at both sides of the abortion issue." Unfortunately, she adds, it's doubtful that 'night, Mother would make it to Broadway in today's economic climate.
Though Pitoniak has appeared in a variety of movies in the past 15 years--including the upcoming adventure film Where the Money Is, starring Paul Newman--her heart remains in the theater. "I'm much better off on stage," she says. "I like film, but I don't really understand it. The attraction of theater is to take a part and keep exploring and exploring and exploring." Her only regret at having postponed her career for so long is the parts she never got to play: "I'd love to have done some Molière, or more Shakespeare. It's not that I want to do every new play that comes along, but I wish I'd done more classics."
Again, Pitoniak speaks admiringly of her Amy's View colleagues. "I became conscious that the British view acting as a profession and not just a craft," she reflects. "There's a classical commitment that is deeper than most of ours, I think. I remember going to brunch one day with Judi and her daughter and grandson, who is two years old and has red hair. Ronnie Pickup, who was also in the play, looked at the little boy and said, 'Sam will have to be an actor, because his grandmother and his grandfather and his mother are actors. And he'll do Richard II, because he has Plantagenet hair!' I thought, what a refreshing affirmation of what we do--of what a discipline it is, and yet what joy you can get from working on wonderful material with your fellow actors."
As the time draws near for the evening dress rehearsal, Pitoniak makes a surprising confession: "I have never put 'actress' on any form of identification. I'm not trying to be coy, but I always felt that it would have been stretching things a bit to identify myself that way. But after Amy's View, for the first time I felt that, if I had to get a passport today, I'd put it down. I'd say that I am an actress."