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Alexander the Great

By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 1998

  Style Showcase

It was the first preview performance of "Honour," a new drama by Joanna Murray-Smith about a middle-aged woman whose marriage implodes unexpectedly. The play's star, Jane Alexander, was waiting to make her entrance, and . . . But why not let her tell it?

"I don't come on until the second scene," she says. "So I'm sitting backstage and I can hear the hush of the audience. The curtain is about to go up. All the lights are dimmed and then I see Ritchie, who's the curtain puller, reach up and grab the rope and – whoosh! – give it a yank. Suddenly I got this rush of tears. And I thought to myself, 'I've been in this business for a long time. I love these people. I love this ambiance. I'm really home.' "

Whatever the critics may have to say, when "Honour" opens today at the Belasco Theater, the occasion indeed represents a homecoming for the 57-year-old actress. Four and a half years ago, Alexander left a certified Broadway hit, "The Sisters Rosensweig," to go to Washington to become the sixth head of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was definitely a plunge into troubled waters. The agency, once considered sacred, was under assault from the Christian right for fostering indecency. Before long, the 104th Congress vowed to see it abolished altogether.

For four years, Alexander fought tirelessly to preserve the agency and argued its merits passionately, as perhaps only an accomplished artist could. While others thundered and sputtered, she somehow maintained her class and her cool, two hallmarks of her acting style. But by the time she resigned the post last October, NEA grant money had been cut from $150 million to $81 million, while the administrative budget had dropped from $24 million to less than $17 million.

"The very thing I hoped wouldn't happen – that the endowment would be a political football – continued in many respects to be the case," she says now. "Congress cut us to ribbons and abolished a lot of important areas of granting. I'd like to believe it's over, but I don't know. What was so frustrating for me was that I couldn't understand where the agency's enemies were coming from – except from a purely political point of view or a non-educated point of view. Maybe it was both. But I'm proud of being able to keep the agency and its integrity alive to the degree that we could."

Her sigh is barely audible.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says.

If the years of battle in Washington have left her bruised, the evidence is hard to detect. She has forgone makeup this morning, and her face seems unusually youthful. Her brown hair is long and casual. Dressed in a sober skirt and sweater, she incarnates the taste and self-assurance of the New England patrician. There is nothing attention-grabbing about her. In fact, the only note of color comes from the bowl of fresh tulips in her hotel suite, which is otherwise a discreet symphony of browns and grays.

Alexander is not one to complain, but her time as a public servant put a big strain on her personal life. As the producer of the hit television series "Law & Order," her husband, the director Ed Sherin, was tethered to New York. So for four years, they saw one another only on weekends. Even at that, Sherin was apt to be deep in script conferences all weekend long, while she was digging her way through mounds of paperwork.

"It was tough on my friends and my family," she says. "I'm still trying to knit together some of those threads that got very worn. But I simply had no time. I'd fly home to New York on Friday nights, then back to Washington on Sunday nights. I became very well acquainted with the Delta Shuttle, which is the best. Much better than . . ."

She catches herself. Four years of treading delicately in Washington have not been lost on her.

". . . than the other one," she concludes diplomatically.

The NEA is not totally out of her life. Alexander is currently writing a book, as yet untitled, about her experiences at the helm of the agency. "I think it's an important time to document. But I also think it might be interesting to people, because I sort of represent John Q. Public. I went into worlds that I never would have gone into otherwise, . . . It's so different from the private sector. Public service is about opportunity and access for all. You're there because of the taxpayer, because of the Constitution. So there are lots of rules and regulations and a whole way of conducting yourself.

"The learning curve for me was long, but I think by the end of my first year, I had pretty much figured out how everything worked. You know one of the things that astonished me? Washington bureaucrats. Everyone rags on them. But they're the smartest, most interesting people I met. Really. Everybody works just like a dog in Washington."

Alexander never broke a sweat, but she worked no less diligently for that. "I think she gave that organization just what it needed at that time – someone of unassailable character and talent," says Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who chaired the now-defunct Congressional Arts Caucus. "It was an uphill battle. I think she expected people to behave better than they do. She met these people hell-bent on eliminating funding to the arts. But she dug her heels in and caught on quickly and she was unfailingly gracious. Even in the face of vicious attacks and stupid questions, she never lost her composure. It had to be the greatest acting job on Earth."

Old Days in D.C.

Almost from the start of her professional career, Alexander's fortunes have been entwined with Washington. In the early days of Arena Stage, she was one of the company's busiest actresses, appearing in a succession of anguished and often tear-stained parts that reached a culmination in 1968 with "The Great White Hope."

"She would do anything for a role – cut her hair, pinch her waist, be wild and speechless as she was in 'Mother Courage,' " recalls Arena's co-founder Zelda Fichandler. "I always felt she did what Stanislavsky urged: She loved the art in herself, not herself in the art."

"Great White Hope," which was developed under an early NEA grant, went from Arena to Broadway, taking Alexander with it and elevating her to stardom. When she returned to Washington, which she did frequently in the '70s, it was as a certified leading lady – assured, glamorous even. Under the auspices of Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens, she starred in such classics as "The Time of Your Life" (with Henry Fonda) and "The Master Builder" (with Richard Kiley). In "First Monday in October," she played the first female justice on the Supreme Court, when it was still a hypothetical premise. All told, she has appeared six times at the center, a record only Julie Harris and Jason Robards can match.

"Of course, my third life in Washington has been the political one, which is quite interesting," she says. "Because when I was first at Arena, I was very anti-establishment. My co-star in 'Honour,' Robert Foxworth, was also a company member. The other day, we were recalling our anti-Vietnam stance and how we would meet, late at night, with Senator Fulbright, asking him what we could do to stop the war. He was the only one then who publicly opposed it.

"Then I got invited to the White House by Lyndon B. Johnson. He was my president because I was a Democrat, but I absolutely abhorred his politics, because of the war. When he asked me to dance with him, I was terrified. I didn't see how I could possibly do it! Well, he turned out to be such a wonderful dancer that I forgot all about my convictions and just had the best time doing the fox trot with LBJ."

'No More Insaneness'

In "Honour," Alexander plays Honor, a poet who gave up a writing career for marriage only to learn in her late fifties that her husband has decided to leave her for a younger woman. Murray-Smith, a 34-year-old Australian writer, says the story line is purposely unoriginal. What takes it beyond cliche, she hopes, is the pared-back dialogue that eschews naturalism and flirts at times with outright abstraction.

Alexander, who acknowledges that plays for mature actresses are not exactly abundant these days, appreciates the richness of this one. "There's a lot of sadness in it, because it's about the end of a very long and important relationship," she says. "But it's got a lot of joy, too, because the character ends up in a good place, standing tall. Everything is heightened. It's almost classical."

Murray-Smith, who has never had a play produced before in the United States, let alone on Broadway, looks upon the casting of Alexander as a bonanza. "It was Graham Greene who said there is a little chip of ice in every writer and there's a little bit of that in Jane, too," she explains. "She conveys upfront the character of someone who is very sure of herself, poised, comfortable. As the play goes on, she falls away from that and she becomes a woman absolutely exposed. I see her reaching for depths of sorrow and anguish that will, I think, be surprising to audiences."

Alexander has been in the business far too long to think that she can predict the commercial prospects of "Honour," although she is heartened by the current flurry of activity on Broadway. "It's a great time to come back to the theater and, of course, I hope people will respond," she says. "But if that doesn't happen . . . well, I do see this as being the last third of my life. There are priorities we have to carve out for ourselves. For me, it's a matter of saying 'No more insaneness. I can't show for that event. I'm going to stay home and be with Ed.' "

In pursuit of the solitude that their careers have made all but impossible, she and Sherin recently bought a summer home on the southern coast of Nova Scotia. Its remoteness was the appeal, along with the plentiful opportunities for bird-watching, their mutual passion. Alexander keeps count of the number of species she has seen and her "life list" now totals more than 800. "It's my form of meditation, I guess," she says. When she talks about the rewards of birding, her voice drops to a hush, as if she were mindful of scaring off a possible chickadee.

Here's a Barbara Walters question: If Jane Alexander were a bird, which one would she be?

The actress ponders her answer for a while. "The raptors are very, very seductive," she finally says. "The eagles, the falcons and the hawks."

What? All sharp of beak? Swooping down on their prey from great heights?

"No, I don't mean that. It's just that raptors don't have the predators that the songbirds have. My favorite of all birds is the wood thrush. They'll be coming back to the woods in about another month. They travel such a long distance, all the way from Central America. And then first thing one morning, you'll hear their little mating call. It's incredible, like liquid silver."

Whereupon Jane Alexander does a surprising thing. She puckers her lips and whistles. Softly and sweetly, the gathering notes of the wood thrush's song fill the room.

And in her eyes, which have seen four long, hard years of political infighting in Washington, there is something like pure delight.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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