For Yelena Bonner, drama and real life collided pleasurably last night in Washington. The wife of ailing Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov walked into the National Theatre and the arms of actor Jason Robards, the man who portrayed her husband in the recent television drama "Sakharov."
Robards' first reaction was to embrace Bonner, plant a kiss on each of her cheeks and then pause silently for a moment before speaking.
"Courage, integrity," Robards began, searching for words, his palms cupped before him.
"I'm very grateful," Bonner said through her translator, "for the work you put into the film."
"I only wish I'd known more about the man," said Robards, an arm on her shoulder. "I hope I brought my love for you and your husband into this."
"When I watched the movie," she replied, "I cried. I had no words to speak."
"She really cried," added the translator.
Bonner, looking healthy and well rested after her recent coronary bypass surgery, was making a brief Washington visit to attend the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, of which her husband is an associate member. When she heard Robards would be in town to participate in the Helen Hayes Awards last night, she expressed a desire to meet him.
The 62-year-old dissident, who was sentenced to join her husband in internal exile in Gorki in 1984, was granted an exit visa late last year to seek treatment for eye ailments and angina. Her heart surgery was performed last month at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Although the Soviet government has not allowed her to give interviews to the press, she certainly felt free to talk with Robards.
She will remain in the United States until June 2, when her visa runs out. "It's very hard to talk about enjoyment," she said, "because of the surgery I've had." Her recuperation, however, has included time with her mother, son and daughter, who live in Newton, Mass.; a few days' rest in the Caribbean; and last night's chance to meet Robards and catch a Barbara Cook performance at the end of the awards ("I like Barbara Cook," said Bonner).
But the main event for her was clearly Robards. They spoke in the theater lobby, outside it during a brief photo session and later at the awards reception at the National Press Club around the corner.
"I had a strange feeling to be here," continued Bonner, mentioning her National Academy of Sciences visit, where they "were sending greetings [to Sakharov]. And from there I was going to see a man who would play my husband. It was phantasmagorical.
"Do you understand?" she asked Robards in English.
Yes, Robards understood.
"I find it hard to break through my care for you and your husband," said the actor, his arms gesticulating again. The conversation moved to health. Bonner, whose doctors advised her to quit smoking, told Robards she had done so.
"Me, I quit," said Robards.
"It's very difficult," said Bonner in English. "I have chewing gum for it. Do you want?" Robards laughed a hearty Robards laugh.
At the photo session, Bonner replied only to general questions, telling reporters, "Sakharov is fine." She had word about her husband as recently as last week, her translator said.
Most of the talk last night was of the TV movie. Bonner said she had heard on Soviet radio of the 1984 Home Box Office TV docudrama but had seen the film (which stars Robards and Glenda Jackson) only after she left for the West last December. Her son Alexei Semyonov, who has introduced the film to live audiences 30 times, she said, had told her he "also cried 30 times."
Glenda Jackson, Robards told her, "did a lot of protesting in London" for the Sakharov cause.
"I thought she was wonderful," said Bonner. "I liked her very much. She's a thousand times better than I am."
"Naaaaaaa," said Robards. And to the translator he added, "Tell her I'll take her on a date," offering Bonner his arm. He then took her by limo to the National Press Club, and the two conversed again on light topics, about the flowers at a nearby table, about a play Robards was reading.
"Do you exercise?" asked Robards, gesticulating again.
"I eat too much," said Bonner.
"I don't drink," said Robards. "Twelve years . . . I lost 23 pounds."
"I gained 11 pounds," was the reply. "When I go to Gorki, I will lose weight."