Legendary Sternhagen brings in another fine performance
By Jerry Tallmer
She is a London charwoman in her 60s quiet, self-effacing Mrs. Dowey and throughout all these months of World War I, the war to end all wars, she has been sending letters to a son in the trenches, the way all the other old bags, her gabby fellow charwomen, have been doing.
Only he isnt her son, and they arent letters, theyre envelopes filled with blank sheets of paper.
Now, suddenly, here he is, back in blighty, i.e. England, on five days leave Pvt. Kenneth Dowey, no relation, a great rough chunk of Scotland...in his Black Watch uniform, all caked with mud...scowling at the old lady the playwright tells us daring her to raise her head.
The soldier goes to throw the letters in the fire. She grabs them. Theyre all I have, says the Mrs. Dowey who never had a man or a husband or a son. What made you do it? the brawny private demands.
It was everybodys war, mister, except mine, says Mrs. Dowey. I wanted it to be my war too.
If that doesnt break your heart right there as it springs from the lips of Frances Sternhagen, the rest of this exquisite 1917 one-act play by James M. Barrie surely will. Its called The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, and its on a double-bill with The New Word, another short Echoes of the War play by Barrie, at the Mint Theater through August 29.
It was the last period of innocence, wasnt it, and these plays have a kind of innocence, said fine, fragile (like steel) Ms. Sternhagen the other afternoon, herself the real-life mother of six.
The time when war started to get horrible. Cannon fodder. People sent their children off with pride until they realized they were getting decimated.
[Twenty thousand British infantrymen died coming out of their trenches 40,000 were wounded the morning of July 1, 1917, on the Somme.]
Its very difficult now to think of war as being a good solution to anything, she said.
This is in fact Frances Sternhagens second recent dip into World War I.
In Waiting for the Telegram, one of the half-dozen monologues of Alan Bennetts Talking Heads at the Minetta Lane, she was a 95-year-old woman in a nursing home who talks to a male nurse about the man who died so long ago in that war, the man to whom she was engaged. She, Violet, later married someone else, but the man who died was the one she loved. (The performance earned this superprofessional actress an Outer Critics Circle Award to go with her Tonys, her Obies, and all the rest of it.)
I think about that whole era, said the Barrie plays Mrs. Dowey. My mother was in the Red Cross during World War I. She became engaged to a flyer who was stationed near her canteen. No, she didnt marry him but I think, from her letters and poetry, that was the happiest year of her life.
No less moving than The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is the other half of the bill, The New Word. In this one a father played by another superlative Tony-winner, Richard Easton is struggling to find the words with which to send off to France the son hes never been able to communicate with, and vice versa. Gareth Saxe, the great rough kilted surrogate son of the first play, is a son again, more properly, here.
What goes around comes around. The New Word, written 1915, would be paralleled some 25 years later, during another World War, by Irwin Shaws unforgettable (to me) father-and-son story, Preach on the Dusty Roads. I was thinking of my father the first time, in uniform, I read that one.
Not one of Frances Sternhagens six children was ever a soldier and Im grateful for that, she said. Their father, actor Tom (Thomas A.) Carlin, died in 1991. He was in the Army (went in at 17) between the wars, WW II and Korea. He and she met when he was in her class at Catholic University in her hometown, Washington, D.C., thanks to the GI Bill.
She has been working constantly, steadily, and superbly in the theater since 1955 or earlier. How does one work so much as an actress and have so many children, all at the same time?
I dont know, she said with a laugh. I was afraid to stop to stop working, that is. Luckily enough, I never started to show for five or six months. When I did Samuel Becketts Play for Alan Schneider at the Cherry Lane, the characters are dead people in urns. My friends would come and say: Oh, a perfect play for you!
Frances Sternhagen was never in Peter Pan, J.M. Barries chef dpopularity, but she was once, with Nancy Dussault, in a Quality Street that never got any nearer Broadway than Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Whats funny, she said, is that I was in this play [the one at the Mint] when I was 13, playing the same part, yes, the old lady, Mrs. Dowey. It was at Putney Camp in Vermont.
No, she never imagined she would be doing it again this lifetime later. Some wonderful people have done it in between Helen Hayes, Lynne Fontanne on television.
A few months ago she was asked to take part in a reading of it at the Mint.
I thought: Oh, fun. Oh, good. With a reading you dont have to remember lines, unless you have a hard time reading. I do have two or three friends who are dyslexic.
Well, I just happened to say to the young woman who was directing [Eleanor Reissa, director of both ends of the present bill] that Id like to do this play again sometime. Charlotte Moore [artistic director of the Irish Rep] was there and said: Oh, you have to do it. Next day, Eleanor Reissa called and said: Be careful what you wish for.
Mrs. Dowey, this is Pvt. Kenneth Dowey of the Black Watch. A finer son a mother couldnt wish for. Living or dead.