Colleen Dewhurst: Forging Ahead To Be Brilliant

From Notes Found In A Pile of Papers
Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans

For all of her personal and artistic originality, one--and by one I mean myself--can only think of clichés when it comes to Colleen Dewhurst: She is a light at the end of the tunnel; she is the drink of water in the desert, not to mention the oasis of color you can often find among the sands; she is that damned answer to a puzzle you fretted over for days, and it comes suddenly, joyously when you see her.

I have never had a friendship with her, outside of those meetings in dressing rooms and at parties. I have always wanted one with her, however, because I trust her implicitly. In those huddled, hurried meetings we have had, she has never failed to give me her total attention and honesty and clear, unsentimental vision, despite the fact that so many were tugging at her arms and her hem and trying to pull her toward their own needs.

I wish I had her mordant sense of humor, her ability to laugh away the absurdities and declivities of life. She balances my friend Maureen [Stapleton] by perpetually slapping away the inanities and forging ahead to be brilliant.

From Conversations Around The French Quarter
New Orleans

I wanted to write about Colleen because she has, more times than I previously realized, been terribly important for me in my writing. There are times when we are chained to our desks, waiting for inspiration or release, and we fail to see that the time has come for us to leave the work and try to clear our minds and our eyes: The brain and the eyes need a rinse of sorts, and you can get it from a museum or a play or a symphony or a movie. You watch someone else's work, and you can see that they slipped the knot, found the answer, swerved toward a conclusion. Sometimes you find, in an emotion, something you can use, even if it bears no resemblance to what you're working on. Any connection made by another artist can give you hope or inspiration or a road map or some energy to go back and try the work again.

Colleen can always do this for me, no matter how meretricious the work in which she is forced to labor, and we often joked about the word labor, and how appropriate it is when you're really into the heavy lifting, physical, spiritual, metaphysical at times. You just do it, particularly if you're an actor, but she did it so abundantly, heartily. I can remember her sense of devastation: the loss of a child or innocence or time.  I can remember her rueful joy, with the unacceptable partner in the unacceptable place, but joy snatched miraculously nonetheless. There is always the sense of surprise at gifts discovered where none were expected, and I defy you to try to get me to recall the names of the plays where she snatched truth and beauty from less than thin air, but I also defy you to deprive me of the joy and inspiration I obtained from the way she opened a dreaded letter, or a door that brought nothing but bad news, or the exhilaration at finding communication and understanding deep in the night and deep in the soul. There is always in a performance by Colleen a moment when she fully and magically connects to another actor--another character--and it is magical, and it is unforgettable.

She gives so generously, in every way. On a hot day in Manhattan, the dreaded Bicentennial year, boats and flags and jingoism mixing in the the air like body odor and roasted nuts and burnt sugar--all the smells I know so well---I walked on Sixth Avenue, hot and tired and depressed. There was a tug on my arm. I turned and saw those beautiful teeth, those clear, spectacular eyes, an aureole of hair. It was Colleen. She handed me one of the largest, juiciest peaches I have ever had in my life. 'You look like you could use a peach,' she told me. And I took it. Was the peach that delicious? Or did it gain by having been given by Colleen? I don't know. I'm not given to eating peaches on Sixth Avenue, but I did that day, with her, mostly silent, two wayward workers in the theatre aware of each other's problems and slights and fears. We ate and we smiled. She hugged me and she left.

But I remember that peach.

And I remember Colleen.

And I have those memories.



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