"Side Man"

Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

Through Nov. 28

Tickets: 202/467-4600

No one has an easy time in "Side Man." Warren Leight's nostalgic look at jazz musicians has more emotional riffs than a boozy late-night jam session, but among the least resistent to the ups and downs and slow fade of the business is Terry, played by Angelica Torn.

Terry is the wife of trumpet whiz Gene (Michael O'Keefe), who is the side man of the title. She's young and bubbly when they meet, but after their son is born -- Clifford (Andrew McCarthy), our narrator, reliving his life as a flashback -- dreams start fading as fast as Gene's gigs.

Over the course of the play, Torn ages from a giggly beauty to a haggard, chain-smoking shrew. "It could be one of the scariest things in the world," she says of the transition. But now, after a Broadway run (it was Torn's debut on the Great White Way), living Terry's rapid disintegration night after night feels completely natural.

Torn says the key to Terry's aging process is less a matter of adding wrinkles and makeup than of modulating her voice. "In her younger years the register goes way up," Torn says. "It's high and soft but a little bit raspy, 'cause she comes from a tough neighborhood. When she's older, she's been smoking and drinking a lot so I go deeper. I just drop it. Her posture drops, everything just starts to fall apart."

Of course, being the daughter of actors Rip Torn and the late Geraldine Page helps. Torn says that in playing this role she is often reminded of her mother's acting advice. "She always said the best way to play an emotional run is to set yourself up for the best -- you have to expect things to happen the way you want them to happen," Torn says. "It's like a nightmare treadmill. I always set out hoping this time it'll be different, that Gene won't say terrible things to me, and I won't get upset. Because the emotion is so explosive in this play. It's like lightning."