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Citizen Jane

Date: Mar 16, 2009


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Ms. Fonda isn’t the only strong, sexy senior-citizen Jane onstage in New York. When Tina Howe’s new play Chasing Manet begins performances on March 24, 69-year-old Jane Alexander—one of America’s finest actors, and seldom sufficiently appreciated as such—will trod the boards again after a four-year absence.

“I need to keep my hand in,” says Alexander, who may be as well known as an actress in films (The Great White Hope, Testament, ) and TV (Eleanor & Franklin, Tell Me You Love Me) as she is as head of the National Endowment of the Arts during the Clinton Administration. Four years is also the time Alexander played that often thankless role on the public stage (she was NEA chair from 1993 to 1997), and that seems to be about her limit.

“When you’re a presidential appointee, you’re not allowed to do anything else—that job was 24-7,” Alexander recalls. “That was the longest I had ever gone without doing a play since I was a kid. I was so chomping at the bit to get back onstage.” Indeed, it didn’t take long for her to land a role in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour.

It was film and TV work that kept her away from her beloved stage this time around, but Alexander was no less eager to return—so much so that as rehearsals for Chasing Manet began, she was finishing up a run at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in A Moon To Dance By, a play by Thom Thomas about D.H. Lawrence’s wife Freida.

Alexander has had to shift gears, both period-wise and temperament-wise, to play Chasing Manet’s Catherine Sargent, an aging painter confined to a nursing home alongside a vivacious Jewish matron (played by Lynn Cohen).
The character of Catherine Sargent—who claims a relation to the great New England painter John Singer Sargent—suffers not only from depression but from incipient vision loss, a bittersweet fate for a visual artist.

“I think she probably has macular degeneration, and she’s legally blind, but there are lots of people who are legally blind who can see little bits,” Alexander notes. And though Howe’s play doesn’t depict Sargent putting brush to canvas in the nursing home, lack of vision doesn’t necessarily preclude continuing as an artist anymore than Beethoven’s hearing loss ruled out composing.

“Before I played Georgia O’Keefe, I met her, and at the time she was legally blind, but she was still painting,” Alexander says.

But more important than Catherine’s physical afflictions is her mental state.

“She’s desperately unhappy in the nursing home, as many are who have to spend their last years there,” Alexander relates. “My father had a massive stroke and he hated every second of the nursing home—in fact, he was kicked out of 17 nursing homes.” Things turned around, Alexander notes, when “he was visited by Jesuit priests who sat with him and discussed all kinds of spiritual issues.”

This is the kind of engagement Catherine craves because, as Alexander puts it, “She’s still got her mind.”

Howe’s title refers to one of Catherine’s favorite painting, Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, which hangs in the Louvre. In what Alexander calls “a delicious piece of writing,” Catherine explains how “she wants to escape and go to Paris” to see the painting.

Though she’ll turn 70 late this year, the elegantly white-haired Alexander admits that she’s often cast in roles beyond her age.

“I just played an 80-odd year-old woman in a movie,” she confesses. And Catherine is described as being 87 and “certainly a very sick person.” As is often the case with aged or infirm characters, Alexander explains that it’s often better to have someone a bit younger play an older part. “I’m fortunate, I’m very healthy and fit—I engage in martial arts. And Tina felt she needed somebody my age, who’s fit, to play the part.”

In creating the parts of two strong, creative women in a nursing home, Alexander and Howe—friends since Alexander directed Howe’s first play, Closing Time, at Sarah Lawrence College—were partly inspired by an actress they know, Madeleine O’Neill, who at 97 is still going strong. “She played Cleopatra last year in the nursing home,” Alexander marvels.

Alexander says that while she still thinks a lot about her time as head of the NEA, it comes to mind with special poignance now.

“I have great hopes for this new administration, if only because of the bully pulpit that he’s not afraid to use,” Alexander says. “The President and First Lady stress arts education, just as Lyndon Johnson stressed arts education.” When she was named NEA chair in 1993, she points out, “Clinton had inherited such a huge deficit that every agency in government had to be cut.”

Now she’s hoping that arts advocates can make the “ancillary economic payback” argument—that every dollar spent on the arts pours money into the economy at a rate of at least 2 to 1. “I hope that argument can be made again; we tried to make it in the ’90s and the Republicans in charge of Congress didn’t buy it. They kept saying, ‘Get Steven Spielberg to pay for it, get Disney to pay for it.’ ”

She actually tried to do that, in a sense.

“We went to the studio heads and asked them, ‘Why don’t you cough up some money? We could pay for it and not have any of these problems.’ ”

Needless to say, that pitch didn’t connect. But Alexander—who got her big break opposite James Earl Jones in the 1967 drama The Great White Hope, which happened to be the first play promoted by a new theatre organization called Theatre Development Fund—knows as well as anyone around that the best advocacy for the arts is participating in great art itself. By that standard, Alexander remains one of our best arts advocates.