And given the breadth of a career that has ranged from early Broadway roles in Take Her, She's Mine (for which she won the Tony Award) and Barefoot in the Park to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and August: Osage County, no one would blame her for finally resting on her laurels. But Ashley is definitely back in the game now, starring as "Mother" in the New York premiere of Edward Albee's absurdist comedy Me, Myself & I, which begins previews on August 24 at Playwrights Horizons.
"Edward is the Marx Brothers," she says, her throaty, whiskey-soaked voice breaking into deep laughs. "I'm 70 years old and have pretty much done a little bit of everything. But I've not done any Becket or Ionesco, the real fruit loops out there, you know? Wildly creative, occasionally genius, yes, but fruit loops nevertheless. And this play is like vaudeville; it's Edward gone way out there."
Ashley, who will play the mother of identical twin sons -- both named Otto and whom she has trouble telling apart -- vividly recalls reading the script for the first time. "The play was sent to me when I was in August: Osage County. I never go out between shows. It was matinee day and I'm on the couch with a burger or whatever, and it was delivered to me," she says. "And then I was whooping with laughter. Usually when you're given a play by Edward Albee, you don't expect to be rolling about -- but that's what it did for me. And that's what I'm looking forward to."
Having worked with Albee before -- on a Florida production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- she also knows the rules of this particular game. "With Edward, you don't cut a 'the' or an 'and,' but Edward is a genius. I'm so grateful he's alive and he's there, because I can ask Edward what it means when it comes to the stuff I don't get," she notes. "I'm not remotely proud; I'm a looter and a pillager. I'll take it anywhere I can get it. I'll ask people on the subway."
At the time Ashley agreed to do the play, she expected to have months to prepare and get settled in New York, as is her preference. Instead, she found herself onstage eight times a week in Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company's compelling production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, after she was asked to replace the late Dixie Carter by her dear friend, Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn.
"Now when these kinds of things happen, you don't negotiate, you don't dick with it and diddle back and forth," Ashley says. "You make a decision then and there and say yes or no. Because they have to know -- they don't have time, with the clock ticking and a lot of people and money on the line. I thought about my old friend Dixie. And Michael, to whom I owe so much, needed me. So I said if we can work it out so I can be back in New York in time for me to do the Albee play, I'll do it. I only had three weeks to get down here, so it was fast, everything that I live in fear of. If I have to rush something, I'm done. But to do this, I had to go completely on instinct."
And even if doing the play meant breaking one of her own rules, the actress is no stranger to rule-breaking. While she still considers herself an iconoclast, she has learned to choose her fights more carefully. "I've never known anything in my life that was either all black or all white. A true iconoclast, or heretic, generally has a belief, a conviction. To survive, you have to know the bones of principle you have to throw to the dogs to keep the dogs from eating you," she says.
"I've been told this is no way to run a career, and they're right," she adds. "But it was not the worst way in the world to run a life. I did an awful lot of adventurous things that I just couldn't physically do now. I'm too old and broken down. I couldn't captain a racing sailboat anymore. Now, being onstage every night, that's my job. That's probably the only thing that keeps me from being a total criminal or sociopath."