Dianne Wiest: So Much Light

Tenn in Conversation
In New Orleans and
By Phone, from New York to Baton Rouge
Fall 1982

Tenn believed that he first saw or noticed or was "transfixed" by Dianne Wiest in Tina Howe's The Art of Dining, to which he had been invited by Jane Hoffman, who also appeared in the play. As often happened with Tenn, he attended the play and ignored the work of the person who had  sought his approval. Tenn liked the play and loved Wiest, for whom he began a folder of notes and photographs. Tenn searched for films, television programs, and plays that might feature her: He believed that he saw everything she did after 1979.

When we met in the fall of 1982, Tenn was still speaking of her, and he loved the fact that I had a tenuous connection to Wiest through her parents, both of whom lived in Baton Rouge: Dianne's father was a professor of Social Welfare at Louisiana State University, and I had been allowed to audit one of his courses; her mother was a lovely woman who worked in a real-estate office and who had sought election to the Board of Directors of the Baton Rouge Little Theater, and I had voted for her. Tenn loved that I could provide him with information on Wiest's parents, and he managed to inflate their biographies until the two had met on the battlefields of World War II, the wife a nurse and her husband a wounded, American soldier. This fiction appeared as a note--on an index card--of a play Tenn fantasized writing and presenting to Dianne Wiest.

Here is what Tenn said to me about Wiest on a telephone call in November of 1982:

Not afraid in the least to let you see her think; see her crumble; see her adjust, rise, prevail. She has remarkable layers to her work, her voice, her presentation. When I first saw her on the stage, I felt that a mistake had occurred: She seemed lost, startled by the light and the noise surrounding her. This was, however, part of a brilliant characterization that ultimately blossomed into something that made me think I could write something for her. Fog rolled in for me, even though she was perfectly clear: She had handled her own fog on her own time. I think it takes great strength to reveal yourself as so vulnerable, and to do it in a way that doesn’t beg for sympathy or applause. She exposes herself fully, without apology or superfluous effect. She’s very brave and very beautiful, and you want to protect her character—you don’t feel the need to protect the actress because the actress is fully in control of her various instruments. There are dark corners to Alma and to Amanda and Blanche, and even the best actresses often glide across or away from them: They’re very frightening; they take a lot out of an actress and an audience. Easier to work on the tear glands or the pathos. It works to do this, but in a very superficial way, a very theatrically superficial way. I dream of her being Alma or Blanche—or Stella, for that matter. She has a gift of subjugation that would clarify the seduction of Stella. Her Amanda would have the regal bearing that led gentlemen to her door at one forgotten point, and she would also have the warmth and the sweetness that would illuminate her tortured relationship with Tom, the errant, queer son. That vaudeville act that exists between Amanda and Tom has never been investigated. There is laughter in that apartment before the lights are turned off. Turning off the lights on Dianne would be shattering because so much light emanates from her. So much effort would be extinguished; so many dreams. The darkness would be almost fatal. Too much to bear.

Here are some of the images Tenn collected in his folder for Dianne Wiest. 

Martin Munkacsi

Roy DeCarava

Ralph Eugene Meatyard

John Vachon. (This image was not present in Tenn's folder, but he recalled the photographer's name and described an image that makes me think he meant this photograph.)

Julia Margaret Cameron


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