Actress Elizabeth Ashley and Michael Kahn, the gay artistic director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), share a long, loving and fruitful history beginning in 1974 when he directed her in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The production played on Broadway, among other places, and triumphed. Over the years, Ashley has come to D.C. to guest star at Kahn’s theater: First in 1998 for Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” (Ashley considers her Princess Kosmonopolis possibly the best work she’s ever done) and again in 2002 to play cold-blooded Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.”
And now, Ashley returns. This time stepping in for the late Dixie Carter in STC’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the story of a former prostitute turned madam who tries unsuccessfully to shield her priggish daughter from mama’s rather disreputable occupation. Another STC vet, Keith Baxter directs.
“Around the time of Hurricane Katrina, Michael [Kahn] first approached me about playing Mrs. Warren, but we couldn’t schedule it,” recounts actress Elizabeth Ashley during a recent interview in STC’s Capitol Hill rehearsal space. “Then, more recently, he asked me to step in for my dear friend Dixie who was then very ill. When somebody’s under the gun like that, you don’t dick around, so naturally I agreed.”
“The play and the part have turned out to be much more interesting than I first thought,” adds Ashley in her unmistakably smoky voice. “It’s not so much about prostitution, but more of an attack on capitalism and the class system. Of course, I love the politics of it. I’m a total heretic, as you’ve probably guessed.”
Ashley, 70, draws deeply on a long, skinny cigarette and explains what she most likes about Washington theater — namely Kahn — or ‘The Mighty Kahn,’ as she likes to call him. “He’s a tyrant, and I love tyrants,” says Ashley. “There’s no democracy in art nor should there be. He demands an enormous amount from me and takes me out of my comfort zone. While he’s not directing this production, I know he feels I’m right for the part. Plus we share a similar sense of humor and are of the same approximate vintage, although he might be a little older.”
A Louisiana native, Ashley took Broadway by storm while still an ingénue, winning a Tony in 1962 for her role in “Take Her, She’s Mine.” Through the decades, she has proved to be an enduring, inimitable presence on stage, screen and TV. She’s worked with most of the greats including Tennessee Williams, whom she first met when her “favorite ex-husband,” James Farentino, was playing one of the beach boys in the late gay playwright’s “The Night of the Iguana” on Broadway.
Later, Ashley became further acquainted with Williams while preparing for the part of “Cat’s” sexually defiant Maggie with Kahn in Connecticut.
“Tennessee was around all the time,” she recalls. “We were doing his original version of the play. He’d come to rehearsal carrying Brioni bags overflowing with papers. He’d pull out an old draft and say, ‘Let’s try it this way today and see how that goes.’”
Ashley continues, “I’ve been in the show rackets for over 50 years. Twice I have retired for long periods of time. I’m not a fan of civilization. Now and then I need to get far away from New York with my dog and my books and cleanse myself from the negativity of the profession. But I’m also not rich so eventually I need to return to work and acting on stage is what I do best and enjoy most.”
Next up, Ashley returns to New York to take on the role of “Mother” in gay playwright Edward Albee’s new work “Me, Myself & I” at Playwrights Horizons.
“It’s Albee being zany,” hints Ashley. “I tend to see my character as Pebbles [from the “Flintstones”] grown up and ruined. That’s how I see her and that’s all I’ll say. There you go, deal with it!”
‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’
Through July 11
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harmon Hall
610 F St., N.W.