Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.
Linda Stephens has had some eminent admirers. Twenty-three years ago, when Tennessee Williams saw her onstage in The Night of the Iguana, he proclaimed her one of his two favorite actresses in the role of Hannah Jelkes. (The luminous Dorothy McGuire was the other.) Last year, when she performed at the Kennedy Center in Sunday in the Park with George, the musical's composer, Stephen Sondheim, sent a deeply moving letter that concluded, "When I see people like you perform, it makes me want to write."
Now local theatergoers can see her perform -- twice. In the current felicitous Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of My Fair Lady, Stephens plays two roles -- Henry Higgins' housekeeper and his mother -- and she instills both characters with persuasive humanity. (The musical was reviewed in these pages in the issue of October 22.)
For Stephens, My Fair Lady is a musical fraught with memories, for this is the show that altered her life. In 1968 she was a senior at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, majoring in voice and minoring in violin. She intended to become a college professor. Then, most unexpectedly, she found herself cast in her first musical, as Eliza Doolittle. Even more surprising, she fell wildly in love with her Henry Higgins, a clownish young actor named Larry Shue. They graduated in June and married in September. Because Shue was an actor, Stephens also took to the boards.
Her fondest memories are of working in a nonprofessional dinner theater in Washington, D.C. "It was the kind of pure, innocent theater experience everyone has in their formative years," she recalls. "As your career evolves, you always hope to get back to that purity, but you rarely do." It was here that Shue became a sort of Washington theater legend. "Larry was a brilliant comic actor," Stephens says. "If something was funny, he would not let go of it until all the laughter was squeezed out of you and you were in a place of joy."
Although they remained "the best of friends," eventually the marriage ended. Stephens became a leading player at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta; Shue went to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where he found the confidence to write plays that reflect his inimitable command of humor. His first comedy, The Foreigner, is now one of the most-produced plays in the American theater. (Coincidentally, The Foreigner is being staged at the Kirkwood Theatre Guild through November 8.) Another Shue comedy, The Nerd, is almost as popular.
In September 1985, just weeks before he was to open on Broadway in the new musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the 39-year-old Shue was flying to Virginia when his commuter plane crashed into a mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Everyone aboard was killed.
In the years since Shue's death, Stephens' career has been remarkably fecund. She has acted throughout the nation in scores of plays, both musical and dramatic. Her bravura performance in the off-Broadway musical Wings garnered the kinds of rave reviews of which most actors only dream. Yet no matter where her career has taken her, she has felt connectives to the past.
When, for instance, she was featured as the forsaken wife in the recent Broadway revival of Damn Yankees!, the Devil was played by Victor Garber, who also had played a key role in one of Shue's plays. When, late into the run, Jerry Lewis replaced Garber, for Stephens it was like reuniting with an old friend. "Working with Jerry Lewis was wacky," she says. "He took the show very seriously, but he also wasn't afraid to stop the play and let laughter happen. Having been trained by Larry, I knew what that was all about."
Now that she's back in My Fair Lady, Stephens finds herself reflecting on her accidental career. "I've had a real love-hate relationship with this life of mine," she admits, "because I've always felt as if I didn't choose it. It chose me. I married someone whose path was already in place, and so his path became mine. I find it astonishing that the two writers to whom I respond most deeply, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim, have both been moved by my interpretation of their work. Yet now I also ask myself if returning to My Fair Lady isn't the full circle I've been hoping for. I ask if this isn't the show with which I can finally leave this career."
To which Eliza Doolittle might reply with a fervent "Garn!" -- her unique Cockney way of saying, "Not bloody likely."
Correction published 11/19/03:
In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated the year Tennessee Williams heaped praise upon actress Linda Stephens. The above version reflects the corrected text.