"I've been a supporter of the theater for many years but this is a whole new thing now," Woodward says. "It's a transitional period, because Jim McKenzie has retired after an incredible 40 years. He did a great job. But we want to do something different."
At 27, Woodward won the Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. A year later, she co-starred in The Long Hot Summer, the first of several films she made with Paul Newman--and she married her leading man. Between movies, there were plum Broadway roles and stage directing assignments. And, just last year, Woodward took over the reins of the prestigious Westport Country Playhouse, located in the Connecticut town where she and Newman have lived for most of their 42-year marriage.
The 70-year-old Woodward--who, despite a shock of gray hair, looks half her age--has embarked on an ambitious first summer season as co-chair of the theater's artistic advisory board. Trying to break with the playhouse's "summer stock" legacy of mounting mostly revivals, and taking initial steps toward making it a year-round regional theater, Woodward and her fellow board members have fashioned a summer slate that includes four new plays and one new musical. First up is a revival of W. Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife (June 12-24), directed by Woodward. The summer season continues with Orson's Shadow, a new play by Austin Pendleton (June 26-July 8). Then comes A.R. Gurney's Ancestral Voices (July 10-22), starring Woodward and Newman during the second week of the run. Like Gurney's Love Letters, Ancestral Voices only requires actors to read the play's lines, rather than memorize them.
I asked Woodward if she thought she could have persuaded her husband to appear in a more conventional production. "Oh, no!" she laughingly replied. "Hey, listen, this is the best way to get him on stage--when we have the script in front of him!" Ancestral Voices will be succeeded by Triangles for Two (July 24-August 5), a world premiere comedy by David Wiltse; Morphic Resonance by Katherine Burger, to be directed by James Naughton (August 7-19); and Nicolette & Aucassin, a new musical with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman (August 28-September 9).
According to Janice Muirhead, the new artistic manager of the playhouse, "Having Joanne here gives us a lot of cachet. She is a genuine icon of the American film world. Not only that, she's an incredible theater performer. She loves the theater--and this theater especially. So she very much wanted to put her imprint on it, yet in that collaborative, modest way of hers, which is the way that she functions best."
Woodward would like the theater to again be perceived as the pre-Broadway tryout venue it once was. "This was a Theatre Guild theater, originally," she notes. "It was owned by Lawrence Langner and [his wife] Amina Marshall. Years ago, when they used to close the theaters in New York in the summertime because they didn't have air conditioning, people would come out here. This was a tryout place for new plays. I would love to see that happen again, because it's very exciting. You're taking chances; you're taking risks! That's what the theater's about."
Lawrence Langner was head of the Theatre Guild, one of the most respected producers of plays on Broadway in the middle years of the 20th century. Langner had been searching in vain for a spot for a summer theater until he and actor-set designer Rollo Peters chanced upon a charming, old, red barn for sale just off the Boston Post Road in Westport. The Guild bought it and renovated it as a 500-seat playhouse, later expanding it to 800 seats. Their first production here, in 1931, was an 1857 relic called The Streets of New York It starred silent film icon Dorothy Gish, whose performance was described as "excellent" in a review in a local newspaper.