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Estelle Parsons Channels Her Inner Babe in a New Play by Israel Horovitz

The Oscar winner returns to the place where her career first started: the Cherry Lane Theatre.

In 1962, a young performer named Estelle Parsons burst onto the theater scene in William Hanley's Mrs. Dally Has a Lover. For her performance at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Parsons won a Theatre World Award and never looked back. Her career has taken her from the stage of the Academy Awards (where she won an Oscar in 1967 for her performance as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde) to TV screens across the country as Roseanne's mom on Roseanne and, now, Netflix's Grace and Frankie.

But theater has always been her first love, and she's done enough of it to have garnered five Tony Award nominations along the way. Now, she's back on stage at the Cherry Lane in a play by an equally prolific theatrical talent, Israel Horovitz. In Out of the Mouths of Babes, Parsons stars with Judith Ivey, Angelina Fiordellisi, and Francesca Choy-Kee as the past and present lovers of a now-deceased Frenchman, who connect and reconnect in time for his funeral.

Parsons' role is allowing her to connect with her sexual side, and, as she says, "it's fun to finally play that kind of person."

Estelle Parsons stars in Out of the Mouths of Babes at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

How did you come to be in Out of the Mouths of Babes?
[In 2014] I got a lifetime achievement award from the Cherry Lane, where I did my very first play. Judy [Ivey] and Israel [Horovitz] were there. He has a relationship with [Cherry Lane artistic director] Angelina [Fiordellisi], and Judy has done a thing or two for Angelina there. Angelina said, "I'll commission Israel to write a play for you and Judy." Of course, it was party talk. Next thing we know, Israel has come up with this play. I'm a big fan of Judy's work, and she of mine. She remembers seeing me when she was in high school, forty-seven years ago.

What were your thoughts when you got the script?
I thought he was a little too hard on men for my character. I love men, so I wouldn't be saying those things. But I was appreciating that they were all babes. I like to play babes.

How do you and Israel define the word "babe" in this context?
I don't know how he defines it, but I think babes are people who are interested in sexual relationships. Being an actress and busy all my life, sex is not my number one priority. Of course I understand it's basic, like food and water. You learn that in college. It's not something that has interested me an awful lot. It comes and goes when I fall in love with somebody. I think babes are principally interested in sexual relationships. I don't think that ever dies in a babe. They always have their shirt open a little too far. It's fun to finally play that kind of person. I wanted to say, "Here's what happens to a babe who grows old."

Tell me about working at the Cherry Lane when you were starting out
In those early days [Edward] Albee and Dick Barr ran it. I did Terrence McNally's first play [This Side of the Door]; I did Mrs. Dally Has a Lover. I enjoy playing there. My husband says, "OK, that's success: You got this play written for you." But I consider myself a Broadway baby. That's what I aimed for and that's what I got.

Angelina Fiordellisi, Francesca Choy-Kee, Estelle Parsons, playwright Israel Horovitz, director Barnet Kellman, and Judith Ivey celebrate Out of the Mouths of Babes.
(© @Tricia Baron 2016)

At this point in your career, you go back and forth between acting and directing. How has the profession of directing changed since you began your career?
When I started out, way back when I was just six or seven, the director told you where to go and what to do. It was structured. You basically knew where you were going and what you were going to say when you got there. I find now that directors turn you loose and they don't really orchestrate the text. It's very different now. You roam around the stage and find what you're going to do.

How do you contend with that as an actor?
For me, it's OK, because of the way I work. Directors have always kind of left me alone. But there are always people in a cast who work another way, and whose timing and rhythms are going to be different. I think a play is like music; that's a big thing that all art aspires to be. I'm looking for that music and it's really hard to find. Actors are not looking for the music in the play. That's always my irritation, that it's a little sometimes more cacophony than harmony.

What's next on your docket?
I've got a play of Stephen Guirgis' that I did at the Actors' Studio [The Last Days of Judas Iscariot] that we're doing at LaMaMa next season. I'm gonna do a festival of his plays at the Studio. We have a multicultural group and we really took to him. I just love doing his work. I do more directing now. Acting is like being an athlete, directing is not. I find acting is head-to-toe engagement, not to mention that your emotional interior is turned up to god knows what, the North Atlantic. That's tough.

Is there a key to longevity in this business?
Oh, I think talent is the important thing. If you've got talent and you try to develop it through your life, you'll find work.

Judith Ivey, Angelina Fiordellisi, Estelle Parsons, and Francesca Choy-Key star in Out of the Mouths of Babes.
(© Carol Rosegg)