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Olympia Dukakis: Shaping Another Daughter's Life

"Moonstruck" is one of my favorite movies, so I leapt at the chance to sit down with Olympia Dukakis in 2005, when she was trying out a new play at Nyack's Helen Hayes Theater Company. The play was forgettable. Our conversation indelible.


Olympia Dukakis has played a slew of them. She won an Oscar playing long-suffering Rose Castorini in "Moonstruck." She's played Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey into Night" and Hecuba in Euripedes' masterpiece.

This month, she comes to Nyack as one of the title characters in Barra Grant's dark comedy "A Mother, a Daughter and a Gun," a tune-up for Off-Broadway in October.

Guess which part Dukakis has?

The play, which opens at the Helen Hayes Theatre Company on Sept. 23 for a two-week run, involves an overbearing mother, a daughter on the edge of a breakdown and a gun that gets plenty of action over the course of an evening.

Grant's dialogue is fast, funny and biting, as the mother, Beatrice, and daughter, Jess, (played by Tony nominee Veanne Cox), talk past each other in hopes of coming to terms with their fractured relationship. Add to the mix Tony-winner George S. Irving ("Irene") as Beatrice's husband, Alvin, and the direction of Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny" and BBC's "Yes, Prime Minister") and it promises to be one of the bright spots on local stages this season.

`Much is expected'

Yes, Olympia Dukakis says, she's played many mothers. But there was a time when she was certain parenthood wasn't a good idea for her - or any Dukakis.

"I remember distinctly one Easter watching everyone come out of my cousin Michael's house - I was probably 18 or 19 - and thinking, `No one should have any children. We should stop right now.' Because it was like a mess. I looked at my family and thought, `Everybody should stop having children, because nobody really knows. We're just going to mess it all up.'"

The pressure of being the daughter of Greek immigrants was wearing on her.

"It was what they aspired to you. What they expected of you. What they wanted for you. All of that stuff," she says.

Still, it's hard to argue with the results, says Dukakis.

"Think about it. In one generation, one daughter got an Academy Award and (her cousin) ran for president of the United States.

"Now," she says, her voice rising, "what do think was going on? You had to get up and hit the streets running. ... I remember the phrase `Much is given, much is expected.'"

She grew out of her end-the-Dukakises moment and married actor Louis Zorich a dozen years later. They have a daughter and twin sons, now grown. (She is embracing her role as a "yia yia" to her three grandchildren.) Dukakis and Zorich have recently left their longtime home in Montclair, N.J., and moved back to Manhattan.

Preparing to play yet another mother, Dukakis talks easily about her career and family.

Women are their mothers' daughters, she says, and that bit of knowledge takes her into the character of Beatrice. "I don't know that we're looking to make her deeply complicated, but who she is was shaped by where she came from. Just as who Jess is has been shaped by where she came from."

And who Dukakis is was shaped by her mother.

"One of the things I learned from my mother was tenacity," she says. "The other was to try and see what's really there - as opposed to what I'd like to be there.

"There's something similar about my mother and Beatrice. Beatrice says, `A lifetime spent trying to impress on you a little understanding. A little knowledge of how things are.' How things are. I think maybe that's what mothers do. And it comes from a protective thing: This is what life is. This is what you have to be alert to. This is what you have to think about. Put your mind on this. Don't put your mind on that. This is what you need, over here."

So, when she became a mother, Dukakis was less tenacious, more easygoing. Right?

"You say to yourself, you're not going to make the mistakes your parents did. And you don't. What you do is you make your own mistakes," she says, her voice melting into a throaty laugh. "Which are as damaging as anything else."

How did Dukakis shape her daughter, Christina?

"Oh, God! Sometimes I tremble to think about what I gave and what I didn't give. I'd like to think that there's a kind of curiosity about life and living that I gave her. I'm also deeply aware that I tend to take things seriously and I realize that it's because of Louis that Christina has a capacity to enjoy life. I'm not saying she doesn't have her darker moments, but that she has that and I see that in Louis. The two of them laugh at things that go right over my head."

That sort of observation would make Beatrice bristle. In the play, she's bitterly resigned to the idea that Alvin will have more of an impact on Jess than she will. "She feels she has to fight for her," Dukakis says. "She says that. `I fought to make her different. Somebody else. Enlivened.'"

Yet, even as she's being a mother who wants her daughter to embrace reality, Dukakis will get more than her share of laughs as Beatrice.

"There are moments when Jess is saying, `Give me the gun! Give me the gun!' And I say, `Put a brush through your hair.' Beatrice is down to earth."

She says she tried to learn Grant's dialog "exactly the way she wrote it because I really can hear how funny it is."

But the writer doesn't make it easy on an actress.

"I keep wanting to take the irregularities out. When you memorize, you tend to hear the speech correctly and grammatically and when things aren't that way - especially in this one because there's a Jewish syntax that flourishes in the thing - I tend to iron it, make it kind of regular."

She mentions a particular favorite, when Beatrice concedes to Alvin: "’Always more like you she became.' Do you know how hard it was for me to learn that phrase?"

Grant, the playwright, happens to be the daughter of Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945, the contest's first Jewish winner. Grant says her famous mother didn't see herself in the character of Beatrice, but she did.

"My mom loves it," Grant says.

She says the writing process was a catharsis of sorts. "If you can get it on paper and make it work, you accomplish a lot of soul cleansing," she says.

"I spun a lot of thoughts I had and a lot of observations I made about this relationship into a comedy - a black comedy, if you will. I think when you're [living it], very few people have a great sense of humor. It's not funny. But I think the only way to swallow the medicine is to observe something that's, hopefully, riotously funny, but very, very real. The underpinnings come from the truth."

An actress prepares

Dukakis' approach to a new character illustrates how every role is preparation for another role. (She's played more than 130 parts in Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional productions, according to her biography.)

To find the soul of Beatrice, she remembered a moment on the set of "Moonstruck": "We rehearsed for two weeks. We did all the scenes. The first day of shooting, [director Norman] Jewison is at one end of the block in Brooklyn Heights, I'm at the other, and he yells at me and he's running toward me and he's saying, `I figured it out! I figured it out! The women are the realists! The men are the dreamers!' And then I realized that the scene I had rehearsed with [John] Mahoney was all wrong, because I was flirtatious. The woman just cuts to the chase. I had to turn it around.

"And that's what this is. This woman is a realist. She was raised by a woman who didn't deal with anything. She just looked out a window all her life. She just looked out that damned window."

Kids, it turns out, don't come with owner's manuals.

"Beatrice didn't have the skills. This is what happens with women. All of us come crippled into this thing called motherhood. Crippled. And men can't help us at all. Because they feel that they don't have the right to do what a woman can and should and must and does. Because they carry the child within them. It's just as simple as that. And the crippling keeps getting handed down to the degree that we are all slightly damaged."

Turning words on a page into a living, breathing being takes a bit of doing.

"My job is not to judge this woman. My job is to know what it is to walk in her shoes. That's what I do."

But Dukakis knows she's got help here, in Lynn, whose work she admires - "`Yes, Mr. Prime Minister,' you can begin and end right there" - and Cox and Irving.

"If the play is like a tapestry, I have certain colors. But the audience sees the whole. I don't have to be the whole. I just have to be that (part of) the tapestry. And Jess is something else, and Alvin is something else and

David is something else. And together we all make the picture.

Onstage, Dukakis becomes Beatrice's champion.

"I see where she comes from, I see what made her. I see what she's trying to do. I see what troubles her. I see what frightens her. I see where she feels inadequate. This is the reason why they don't like to have actors on juries, because an actor will put themselves in this position or that position and see this and see that."

Dukakis has been called for jury duty many times.

"Most of the time I'd go down and they'd say, `No, no, no. Pass.' Nobody wanted me. Because they felt that the fact that people knew who I was made it difficult for the other jurors. But then once I actually was on a jury and was a foreman because they dismissed the guy in that seat and we all had to move up and I ended up in the foreman's seat. Not because I was chosen. It's just the seat. That's how it works. It's that seat. You gotta be in that seat."

As it turned out, the case - which involved drugs and a robbery - wasn't difficult and the jury and Dukakis voted to convict without too much discussion. Dukakis didn't have to sway anyone. There was no Henry Fonda scene from "Twelve Angry Men." "No `One Angry Greek,'" she says.

"Life tends to be less dramatic than that," she says.

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