Judith Ivey Balances Broadway’s The Heiress and Broad Stage’s Steel Magnolias

The star tells all about her newest role and directing the all-star reading of the popular play.

Judith Ivey
Judith Ivey
© Tristan Fuge

These days, one can never be sure if one will see Judith Ivey on the stage – or in the wings. The two-time Tony Award winner has become increasingly in demand as a director, while continuing to rack up honors for her performances, such as her recent work as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

On September 9, she will direct a star-studded 25th anniversary benefit reading of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, and on October 7, she returns to Broadway as Lavinia Penniman in Moises Kaufman‘s revival of The Heiress at the Walter Kerr Theater alongside Jessica Chastain, Dan Stevens, and David Strathairn. TheaterMania recently spoke to Ivey about these two exciting projects.

TM: You first directed Steel Magnolias in 2005 at the Alley Theatre in Houston? How does it feel to come back to it?

JUDITH IVEY: I am excited. It is such a great play with a wonderful story. It’s a real crowd-pleaser. I hate to admit it, though, but this time, I feel more attuned with the older characters; I get Ouiser much better now. Last time, the older women just made me giggle.

TM: Who did you relate to before?

JI: I really related to M’Lynn, and I still do. I can’t imagine anything more horrible than losing a child, and I will always relate to that being a mom. How do you mother a grownup? My own daughter is about to be 23, and now there are different parenting concerns. She’s in her first apartment in New York on the Lower East Side. I know it’s changed but I used to be terrified of that neighborhood. When I dated Lewis Black a zillion years ago, he lived on East 7th Street and even in broad daylight, he would walk me to a cab.

TM: What is it going to be like directing your peers — Frances Conroy, Jennifer Coolidge, Annie Potts, and Elizabeth Perkins?

JI: I can’t wait. Annie and I email each other all the time; I’ve worked with Frannie, and Elizabeth I knew socially before she became “Elizabeth Perkins” and I have always admired her work and Jennifer makes me laugh. I only have about eight hours to work with, so mostly I am going make sure they have the right accent. It will be way too brief. I think we’re going to do an East Coast version of this in December, but probably with a whole different cast.

TM: You were born in Texas. So are you a Steel Magnolia?

JI: I do think of myself as one. I do think that Southern women are different from Northern women in that we try to hold on to our femininity while also taking charge of the situation. And there are some southern things that never really go away like what food you like to eat. It’s funny, though, I’ve lived in New York far longer than I did in Texas, so if you ask me what I am, I consider myself a New Yorker.

TM: You are returning to Broadway in The Heiress, which is interesting since you played the other “aunt” in the movie Washington Square, based on the same Henry James novel? Did you always have Lavinia in your sights back then?

JI: I’ve always loved Lavinia. She’s the humor of the piece and breathes a little levity into the room. I really hit it off with Maggie Smith, who played Lavinia in the movie. She was hilarious. So I am just going to steal everything I can remember about her performance. After all, they say you should steal from the best.

TM: Are you excited to work with this Broadway cast?

JI: Absolutely. We did a read-through and I think Jessica Chastian is really something. I also sat there the whole time thinking what are they going to do to make her look plain. But as I learned on Washington Square, a lot of being in that period helps with that. As for Dan, I am a big fan of Downton Abbey and he is so nice and full of enthusiasm — and handsome. Jessica and I were joking: “what a horrible job it will be for the two of us to look at him and David all day.” And I’m thrilled to work with David. He makes such a convincing argument for Catherine not being with Dan’s character, and that really makes the play work.

TM: I know you’re also excited about working with Moises Kaufman, the director. Now that you’ve directed, is there a director you’d like to work with again, or go back in time and observe better?

JI: I guess because he does it so seamlessly, I would love to work with Mike Nichols again. Doing Hurlyburly was really a momentous time for me. And I did watch him meticulously. The thing about Mike is that you forget you’re being directed. He’s so clever – all of a sudden he stops talking and you find yourself telling Mike what’s going on. And he knows. He’s guiding you. And I just fell for that!

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Steel Magnolias

Closed: September 9, 2012