The critics have been doing loop-de-loops over her performance in Arthur Kopit's new play "Wings," but Constance Cummings seems to be balancing herself quite nicely in the headwinds of this overwhelming acclamation.
Already, they're talking about Tony awards and using adjectives like stupendous to describe her tour de force as an elderly woman, who used to walk on the wings of a biplane and finds herself faced with a far more courageous task after she falls victim to a storoke.
"I've never had this kind of a reaction to a performance before," she says in crisp English accents that were adopted as quickly as possible over 40 years ago when she first began to work on the English stage. "We were all a bit surprised. When I first decided to do it, I thought of it as a very, very interesting experiment, a sort of collector's piece. Just the sort of thing for a little theater at Yale."
But now "Wings" is playing the Kennedy Center, and then it will be off to Broadway, and Constance Cummings is off to celebrity at day's end in the evening of her life.
The character she plays is supposed to be in her 70s. Cummings herself is in her late 60s, though she doesn't want too fine a point put on the recise number of years. "Don't mention age," she says. "I don't want people going around saying, 'Oh, is she that old?'"
She is delicate looking, nearly demure, in a dark blue blouse, and dark skirt, spectacles and strapped shoes, all thoroughly consistent except for the red hair, which shakes up the tone like a wisecrack in the middle of a sober conversation. The dressing room has the usual mementos -- photographs of grandchildren, mementos having to do with the play, congratulatory telegrams, but reflections are kept to the brightly lit mirror -- these she does not share quite so readily.
"I don't know if I'm being insensitive or stupid or very wise," she says. But no, the suddenness of the fate that befalls her character, the cataclysmic way in which the protagonist is plunged into her struggle does not lead the actress down contemplative paths concerning the frail hold on good health and the tools of message and meaning.
Instead, it is the future she thinks about, talks of, relishes as the repository of her daydreams. "I'm always going forward," she says. "I don't like reminiscing. I like tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Her yesterdays she lights sparely, not one to paint readily an impressionistic portrait of the past. "I don't often feel nostalgic," she says. "Except about married life."
Her husband, Benn Levy, was a British playwright who died five years ago. She met him in Hollywood, he brought her to England in 1933. There she burnished her theatrical reputation and founded her family, coming back to this country only occasionally for a tour, the last, eight years ago with Nicol Williamson in "Hamlet."
She has a dairy farm in Oxfordshire, 600 acres, 400 head of cattle, a way to face forward. "There are always plans to be made there," she says. "Always policy to be decided. It gives you marvelous vistas into the future."
In the past, there was a childhood in Seattle, a career that began in New York, an ambition to dance. "But there weren't the same opportunities then for dancers," and instead she followed a professional path that sounds as if it might have come from one of the dozens of movies in which she at one point played minor parts -- a smile in a chorus line, a small speaking part, a screen test, a Hollywood contract, the marriage that led back to Broadway, the starring role in a successful play directed by her husband -- "Accent on Youth."
There was acclamation then, she says, excellent reviews, the potential for celebrity. If she had stayed in Nw for celebrity. If she had stayed in New York then, it could easily have been for stardom, possibly playing roles in vehicles created especially for her.
Instead, she went to London, to do repertory theater at the Old Vic -- playing St. Joan, Juliet, -- the traditional roles that teach an actress the was a good thing," she says. "It keeps the profession in perspective."
In London, after the war, she and her husband "knew just about everyone in the theater," and a number of those in politics as well, when he was a member of Parliament. She bought the farm 17 years ago, when he was recovering from his first heart attack. It became his passion, and after his death, her love.
Her world in the last two decades has not so much changed she says, as it "has shrunk. Some of my friends are among the people I met when I first came to England. Others -- you lose touch, people die." There is no claustrophobia. "You see, it's very easy to love that little bit that's left."
She has stayed in England since her husband's death, to stay close to her family, a son and daughter and two grandchildren. "Wings" brought her back.
"They sent me the script and I read it and I thought 'How in the world am I going to do this?' Time and space are really ridden above in this play."
It is an amazing play to commit to memory, with Emily Stilson, the main character, doing most of the talking, veering back and forth between rational dialogue and scrambled speech that reaches for poetry in erratic, nonsequential monologues.
Asked about how she went about memorizing her lines, she laughs. "Oh, I just forced it in," she says. "I just kept stuffing it in until it stayed." About the acting of it, however, she becomes intent. "It is very, very delicate, this piece. You have to be so careful, so true, so correct -- and I don't just mean correct in the lines. You have to be true to its weight."
But no, she says, there is not much of Constance in Emily, and she feels as if she knows very little about her. "I never thought much about what her children and her husband must be like. Usually I do -- about characters I play -- but this time I never really formed an impression of her past."
She did, however, hear tapes of the woman on whom the protagonist is based, hear her long protracted struggle to articulate the simplest of words. And then there was the time the therapist said to her, "I understand your husband was a stunt pilot, too," and she replied clear as a bell and perfectly distinctly, "I don't want to talk about that!" Strange, the emotional catapults it sometimes takes to force thought into the narrow straits of speech.
It grew dark. Time soon, for the evening's transformation into a woman whose sense of herself has been swept away by something as cold and harsh as the winter wind. Would she be able to respond with the courage and grace of the character she plays? "I think I would. I think I'd try."
She is asked what is her favorite part of the play and she talks about the section where Mrs. Stilson reminisces about being lost one night in the sky, circling a small town, clinging to its few lights until she summons the courage to go north into the darkness.
"I guess I do relate to her there," Constance Cummings says. "I've always been willing to take a chance. And I always will. I'll always be willing to take a flier."