Blythe Danner
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Blythe Danner
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Blythe Danner is no stranger to the work of Tennessee Williams; she earned a Tony Award nomination for her role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and she gave a memorable performance as Alma Winemiller in the 1976 television version of Eccentricities of a Nightingale. But when the Roundabout Theatre Company asked the Tony Award-winning actress to play Violet Venable in its revival of Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, it was her first exposure to the one-act play.

"We did a lot of Tennessee's work when I was at the Williamstown Festival, but for some reason, Nikos Psacharopoulos [the festival's late, longtime artistic director] was never drawn to this play," Danner recalls. "In fact, we never even spoke about it." Nor did she ever discuss it with Williams himself. "I remember that Tennessee used to come up to Williamstown and sit at the back of the theater, and he would just laugh at the most tragic things. He asked me to do some of his later plays. I was in California during those years, raising my children [the Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow and filmmaker Jake Paltrow], and I didn't get let out of the barn that often. But I was deeply touched that he wanted me to do those works."

Moreover, Danner has never even seen the famous -- or, to some minds, infamous -- 1959 movie version of Suddenly Last Summer with Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift. "I do know it wasn't one of Tennessee's favorite adaptations," she notes. "I very much wanted to see the version they did for TV [in 1993] with Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson, but I never got to it. Now, I won't see either film until after our run is finished, because you can't help but try to steal something from them."

Violet, who is willing to lobotomize her niece Catharine [played in the Roundabout production by Carla Gugino] to prevent her from telling the truth about the death of Violet's beloved son, Sebastian, is one of Williams' most strong-willed and even dislikable characters. But Danner doesn't necessarily see her as hateful. "I think there's quite a lot to empathize with in her," she remarks. "She's very human, and I think she's got a lot cooking. She's not just a one-dimensional monster. I think she's part of the natural progression of all his heroines, and I think you see also see a bit of Tennessee in all his women. Plus, I just love the language of this show. I get drunk on it. I was reading Tennessee's memoirs recently, and he felt it was some of his most beautiful writing. It's just incredible what he's able to paint with his words."

Danner is no stranger to demanding roles, having done Broadway turns as Jill Tanner in Butterflies are Free (for which she won the Tony), the adulterous wife Emma in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, heiress Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, and former showgirl Phyllis Stone in the Roundabout's revival of Follies. On film, she has more than held her own against such acting powerhouses as Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and Barbra Streisand in both The Prince of Tides and Meet the Fockers (which also co-starred Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro).

More recently, she spent two years playing the emotionally damaged matriarch Izzy Hufstodt on the Showtime series Huff, for which she won back-to-back Emmy Awards. "I just adored playing Izzy; she was such a multi-dimensional woman," says Danner. "But I was totally floored when I won the Emmy this year. We hadn't been renewed, so I wasn't even sure why I had been nominated. I went to the awards and I thought, 'I'll get dressed up and have a good time.' "

Blythe Danner and Gale Harold in Suddenly Last Summer
(© Joan Marcus)
Blythe Danner and Gale Harold in Suddenly Last Summer
(© Joan Marcus)
Still, Danner feels that Violet is the biggest challenge of any part she's ever done -- and that's just fine with her. "Coming out of Huff, I decided I should be brave and do something that is sort of overwhelming and a bit terrifying," she says. "My late husband [producer/director Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002] was such a brave man, and I learned a lot of lessons from him, including that you can't always be safe. Sometimes you get slammed for it, and other times you don't."

The role of Violet has many challenges beyond the actual text, she notes: "You need so much stamina for this show, even though it's only an hour and a half. And because Violet has had a stroke, there has to be some physical manifestation of that. I also have to do a New Orleans accent. It was my husband's favorite city. I had someone from down there make a tape for me. I think the accents of the Garden District women weren't as thick as some of the accents are now, so we're trying to keep a balance. That's true of the show as a whole; you have to walk a fine line and make sure that you stay truthful. There's a danger in the play that it can go over the edge. But our director, Mark Brokaw, is wonderful, as is the rest of the cast."

While New York theatergoers are thrilled that Danner is back on the local stage, her famous daughter might have preferred that mom had chosen a different vehicle for her return. "When I told Gywneth I was doing the play, she said something like: 'Whenever you're rehearsing one of those Williams women, I have to take a little break,' " Danner says with a laugh. "So I don't think it's a tragedy that she's living in London at the moment."