"I USED to be able to play 15 up and 15 down," declares Halo Wines, referring to the age span she once tackled as a prominent actor in the region, a longtime member of Arena Stage's company and associate artistic director at Olney Theatre Center.
But now Wines is a woman of a certain age, and in the theater that often means fewer opportunities, fewer auditions and even fewer leading parts. Worst of all, when job offers do come, they are often of the little old lady or doddering grandmother variety. But Wines gamely soldiers on, often directing productions and, when the opportunity arises, playing parts of substance penned explicitly for older women. Yet the actress is under no illusions: Ten "King Lears" are staged for every one "Medea."
The quartet of women starring in "Morning's at Seven" at Olney Theatre Center range in age from 53 to 72, Paul Osborn's dramatic comedy having been written with the older actor firmly in mind. The play, about four elderly sisters in a small town in the Midwest (Wines plays the eldest, Esther), was first staged in 1939 and had a modest initial Broadway run as well as well-received revivals in 1980 and 2002. The latter starred Estelle Parsons and Piper Laurie and was nominated for a Tony Award for best revival.
Revolving around the Gibbs sisters, arguably the original "Desperate Housewives," "Morning's" explores the tectonic shift in family relations brought on by one sister's plans to move away from the clan.
"It's a beautiful, wonderful, funny, intricate, multi-layered play," says Sally Kemp, who plays Ida, "the slow one," according to the play.
"This is the greatest, greatest treat to work with grown-ups and not be the oldest person in the cast," says the 72-year-old, a New Yorker with multiple Drama League Awards to her credit and a repertory of roles spanning television, Broadway and regional theater. She says she relishes working with colleagues who have as much life experience as she has. "I had been a leading lady for a long, long time," Kemp says. Then one day she realized she wasn't getting cast as often, even in roles for older actors. "That's when I stopped dying my hair and let it go gray." The offers began rolling in again, including, of course, the part of Ida in "Morning's."
Anne Stone, a native Washingtonian who has worked at the Folger Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre and elsewhere, is, at 53, the youngest of the four leads. Stone has played characters beyond her age for much of her career. "I started out doing older roles," she says, attributing that to her vocal range, a velvety alto. "I was wondering if I've found my old age early, or if I'm going to be lucky enough to get to do these roles again as age-appropriate." Stone is Cora, the calmest of the sisters, who nevertheless sparks the family upheaval -- it is she who wants to move out of the Gibbs family circle.
Nancy McDoniel, who plays Arry, the youngest of the clan, has had a varied career that has taken her across the country and back, as both an actor and a flight attendant. She has been seen on Broadway, on major television dramas such as "Law & Order" and in upcoming films. Yet she still takes a "don't tell" stance about her age.
"They tell you not to tell," she explains, smiling sweetly and referring to the sage advice of her agents.
Kemp chimes in: "I think that's wrong. Young women should know that it's perfectly all right to be 72 and still be living a full life."
"That would be great in a perfect world," McDoniel agrees. But for now, she says, as an actor: "I'm whatever age I'm supposed to be."