TERESA WRIGHT would seem to have achieved everything there is to achieve as an actress. Her 40-year career, which took her from Broadway to Hollywood and back, won her the Academy Award and even a command performance and dinner with the Roosevelts at the White House. But somehow she never got around to playing Shakespeare.
"But then, I've never been in a musical either," says Wright, who is undertaking her first Shakespearean role, playing the Countess of Rossillion in "All's Well That Ends Well" at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Sitting in director Michael Kahn's office on the morning of the production's first preview, Wright confesses to a mild anxiety.
"Shakespeare's just so different," she says. "I had never even done any poetry reciting or learning -- it was I guess like being asked to sing opera if you just had sung ballads. It's intimidating, but it's so exciting. I decided I had to try it."
Wright, who has a gentle, gracious presence, remembers her first appearance in Washington: "I was understudying Emily in the original touring production of 'Our Town.' But when we came to Washington I had to play Rebecca, because in those days -- which was about 1938, I suppose -- believe it or not, blacks and children were not allowed to perform on the stage in Washington. Which shows you we've made some progress. But because of that I got to play Rebecca. That was really my very first public walking on stage playing somebody." Wright was 20 and tiny at the time, and thus, was asked to play the part of 12-year-old Rebecca.
The command performance and the Roosevelt invitation for dinner at the White House came with Wright's first Broadway role, "Life With Father." "I'll never forget it because Mrs. Roosevelt managed to sit at every single table there, and we were a big company, I think everybody came, the understudies, everyone. She somehow accomplished the feat of making everyone think she was sitting at their table."
Samuel Goldwyn also spotted her in that show and cast her as the daughter of Bette Davis in "The Little Foxes." "The Pride of the Yankees" and "Mrs. Miniver" followed, and those first three movie roles won the young actress three Academy Award nominations; in 1942, she took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for "Mrs. Miniver." Wright avoided publicity tours and refused to be typed as a "sweater girl," and her defiance led to her dismissal by Goldwyn. Wright temporarily retired from the movies in 1959 to marry playwright Robert Anderson, then returned to Broadway in "Mary, Mary." And she's been on the stage ever since.
Wright says she enjoys working, but takes long stretches of time off in her Connecticut home. And she chooses her roles carefully -- she didn't accept the Countess role immediately. Wright had worked with Kahn two summers ago, when she played Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Managerie" (with Melissa Gilbert and Tom "Amadeus" Hulce), and when Kahn called her earlier this year to pop the question, she "didn't say yes, exactly." Wright says she was drawn to the character's strength, but worked on the role with acting coach Liz Smith to build confidence before deciding. "Then I thought, well, it's a little late in life to start, but I've got to take the leap."
"It's not exactly a Christmas show," admits Round House Theater artistic director Jerry Whiddon of his theater's current eye-popping double-header of Harry Kondoleon's unsettling comic plays. But then, Whiddon has been shaking things up at the suburban theater since he "hit the ground running" two seasons ago with a production of Sam Shepard's "Fool For Love." Since then, Whiddon has programmed plays that would be considered adventurous even at downtown theaters, shows like Keith Reddin's politically potent "Rum and Coke" and Joe Orton's randy "What The Butler Saw."
"Sometimes there's a temptation to do a provocative piece just to see what happens," Whiddon says. "But people like Kondoleon, Reddin and Shepard are the playwrights of this generation who are going to be the Millers and O'Neills. So we have to give them a forum.
"I'm still absolutely apprehensive about doing stuff like this," Whiddon says. Two seasons ago, he expressed some concern about how longtime Round House subscribers would react to the tougher new stuff he was bringing in, plays that are more frank in their language and portrayal of sexual and political themes than audiences were used to.
"And the price we have to pay is that the more extreme the play, the more extreme the responses -- when we get them, the bad responses have been a lot worse. It's a lot easier to lose subscribers than gain them," he says. "But I think we're developing a taste for new work. And we must be doing something right -- this year one of the subscriptions came in with a note attached to the check. It said 'Please don't do "A Doll's House" -- we've seen it.' "
The Play by Play: Now, thanks to audio description technology, even those who can't see the stage can enjoy live theater. "Before the curtain rises, there are pre-recorded program notes and descriptions of costumes and settings, and live narration is carefully fit in between lines of dialogue," explains Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl. She is the founder and president of the Washington Ear radio reading service for the blind and handicapped, which developed the idea in 1981. The audio description system, which made its debut at Arena Stage in 1981, is now available at Ford's Theatre, Kennedy Center, National Theatre, Olney Theater, Round House Theater and Tawes Theater at the University of Maryland. For performance dates, call the theater box office or The Washington Ear at 681-6636.
Bulletin Board: Woolly Mammoth is extending its hilarious "Harvey" through January 3. Call for a schedule -- the troupe will be off Christmas week and December 31 (the latter so actor Rob Roy won't have to reschedule his wedding) . . . Punk poet/rocker Jim Carroll reads from his harrowing stuff this Friday, 9 and 10:30 p.m. at d.c. space . . . Singing for your Sullivan is the latest box-office gimmick: If you can sing a phrase from any Gilbert & Sullivan musical for the Kennedy Center box office in person or over the phone, you'll get a $5 discount on tickets for the December 29 and 30 performances of "HMS Pinafore."