Judith Light: Ready To Receive

Judith Light, around the time Tennessee noticed her.

The act of faking the fog--creating the atmosphere from which a woman might appear and force a play into existence--had its own intricate choreography: A particular chair would be appropriated, or a certain number of pillows would be used to prop him up on the bed, facing the television. A pad of paper or a table upon which sat a typewriter--his own or that of the hotel or the host with whom he was staying--ready for his notes, his impressions. The remote control--if there was one--always in his hand; in the other a drink. Channel to channel, face to face, voice to voice: Where was the inspiration?

Tenn would move from a talk show to an old movie to a game show--any of these offerings might present a person or a sound that could lead him to write, begin, or imagine something.

I watched Tenn pursue the fog in his room at the Royal Orleans, rapidly moving from image to image. I wondered if he had ever found anything he could use.

He told me this story.

In late 1979 or early 1980--he could not recall--his good friend Kim Hunter had invited him to dinner, and had then asked him to watch her in her latest endeavor: The daytime soap opera The Edge of Night. Tenn generally avoided soap operas, what he called slag heaps where actors went to collect paychecks and die an ignoble death ("There is greater dignity, I would think, in porn," he had said). Nonetheless, for his friend, he began to make  arrangements to be near a television set in the afternoon to watch her wreak havoc. "This was during the time of Clothes [for a Summer Hotel], and I was welcoming any diversions," he said, and it allowed him communion with Hunter, who, along with Anna Sokolow, was trying to help Tenn's latest play achieve "lift-off."

In the early summer of 1980, Hunter earned a nomination for a Daytime Emmy Award, and Tenn agreed to watch and to root for his friend.

He found himself focusing on another woman instead. Her name was--"And this was poetry!" Tenn exclaimed--Judith Light.

Then this remarkable force of energy ran to the stage. I needed to know instantly who this person was. Far too large for her surroundings; far too intense to be near so many brittle personalities. Who was this person? A volatile mix of the profoundly beautiful and the profoundly shy; unkempt but also preternaturally composed. She was my Alma and my Blanche; she was Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward with a dollop of Claire Bloom. In this tacky ballroom!

I did not endear myself to Kim by responding to her loss by asking questions of her victor, nor did I make too many friends when I began to excuse myself to watch the Light [Judith, that is] on One Life to Live. I sneak away for pills and lines of chemical vigor, and I also sneak away for a blast of fog, a snort of what can be. She is a rapacious actress with a rabid intelligence. Look at her vision! I don't mean only her eyes, which are ocular marvels--look at what she finds in the scripts and look at how she looks through and beyond her cardboard-and-crayon sets and her tissue-paper co-stars. She's too big! Which is just about the right size an actress should be to build a part on, because I sense that her eyes and her ears and her arms and her heart are wide open and ready to receive.

I found fog with her, and I hope to find creative surcease.

Judith Light in Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, for which she received the 2012 Tony Award as Best Featured Actress. She is photographed here by Sara Krulwich.

I was fortunate enough to meet Judith Light and to share Tenn's words with her. I have also been a witness to what Tenn predicted for her--her numerous stage successes where her hungry talent found something to consume.

Here is some of what Judith Light said in response to Tenn's words:

For me to discover that Tennessee Williams was even aware of my existence is like being hit by a lightning bolt. To hear that he saw the way I worked and saw--really saw--what I was trying to do in playing a character fills me with the most enormous feeling of both validation and humility. The only thing that comes up for me as a comparison is being an artist and having someone tell you that Monet or Renoir appreciated your work.

You have to understand that when I work on a character... I spend an enormous amount of energy into not only connecting and exploring the infinite facets of the character, but also the writer. My goal is not only to tap into some level of experience of the complexities of that person and that life and the relationship she is having; I also try to be fueled with the process the writer has gone through to access all of that. So I end up with a very, very powerful connection to writers. When I played Stella [in a regional production of A Streetcar Named Desire], I really did have some extraordinary level of this woman being seen by Tennessee in a way that I truly cannot put into words. It is as if he had a kind of X-ray that includes the soul and the heart and distills an entire lifetime into every second, so that every action is a holograph of the whole person. And on top of that, it comes out turning the most ordinary seeming interaction into the most beautiful and poetic language we have heard.

If only he could be here and tap into my experience, I am sure that he would find a way to translate into words something that courses through  my body, fills my heart beyond belief, and literally stuns my mind into a kind of paralysis.  

In notes Tenn had made on Judith Light, I found a copy of this photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, on the back of which Tenn had written "Judith Light/Surcease."

I will write more of Judith Light. There is so much more to tell.

She brought the fog to Tennessee Williams.


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