Mariette Hartley, who has been acting for more than a half-century on stages and studio lots, is about to make her debut at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, in the West Coast premiere of Willy Holtzman’s two-hander The Morini Strad.
The 37-year-old Colony, which expanded into a midsize venue and started using Actors’ Equity contracts after moving to Burbank in 2000, is currently struggling to survive in the face of severe budgetary shortfalls. Meanwhile, Hartley finds it intriguing that Holtzman’s play, opening Saturday at the Colony, serendipitously explores themes very dear to her heart — particularly the crucial role that art plays in our lives.
The Morini Strad is named after Erica Morini, a renowned violinist who died in 1995, shortly after her Stradivarius was stolen from her apartment. In the play, Hartley’s character is a violinist, whose beloved and extremely valuable Stradivarius instrument has been seriously damaged. When she hires a violin maker (David Nevell) to secretly restore it, the prickly elderly musician and the disillusioned young family man first blend like fire and water, until each of them learns valuable life lessons from their developing bond.
Says Hartley, “I was totally unfamiliar with the play and the woman on whom it’s based. I do know something about music because my best friend is a virtuoso pianist, and I just adore him. Trent [Steelman, the Colony’s managing director] called me about this. We knew other through our church, the Center for Spiritual Living. We were in class together.Â I had just come back from a sort of disastrous experience in New York, which was very disappointing, and I wasn’t quite sure where my life was going in theater. Then I got this call out of the blue. The universe is very good to me.”
Hartley fell in love with the play upon her first reading, and accepted the offer. She believes that a two-actor play isn’t necessarily an easy thing to pull off, so she asked the Colony’s management if she could be involved in casting her co-star, who was to be chosen from auditions. She’s grateful that the Colony granted her request. “David was definitely my first choice and he’s wonderful,” Hartley says. “This play is truly a duet, and you need two actors who can work together — vocally and emotionally. You really need that communication.”
Hartley describes the play’s text as “musical.” She elaborates. “When [Erica] speaks of doing a master class, she says life is a symphony, a composition in four parts: allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro–fast, slow, fast, faster. She’s of course in the final movement of her life and she realizes that an important movement to hold onto is the third movement, which is scherzo, the dance. That’s what she keeps trying to teach. It’s a wonderful life lesson from an elder who is kind of stuck in her life. She’s basically a recluse; he has a family with two kids he needs to support, and she keeps pushing him to follow his dream.”
Hartley finds this message beautiful, citing the recent presidential election and her fear that our citizens would “lose so much if we had lost.” Among her concerns surrounding this election was a potential loss of support for the arts. “It’s frightening, terrifying,” she remarks. She believes that one of the great things about the play is that people “get to sit for an hour and 15 minutes and see the importance of commitment, discipline, and passion — not only for an instrument, but for the life of a musician.” If people aren’t particularly Â musical,Â they need to have some passion about something. Whether it’s quilting, or writing, or letter writing, or spending time with their grandchildren — it’s all a commitment, all about connection.”
In creating her characterization of a “salty broad,” Hartley says she is recalling many women she has known. She met legendary actress- instructor Eva Le Gallienne at the Silver Nutmeg Theatre in Westport, Connecticut and thereafter began studying with her at Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theatre in Wilton, Connecticut, at age 14.
“There was nobody more committed to art [than Le Gallienne],” Hartley declares. “She took me under her wing, and gave me a scholarship to study Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shakespeare, and we did her translations. She knew seven languages. We had this amazing spiritual relationship that was astonishing. Everything else has paled in comparison to that relationship and what she taught me. To me, that’s also who Erica Morini is.Â She’s unschooled but is very smart, though not particularly smart emotionally, as with many artists who haven’t had time for that development. The violin repairman kind of teaches her about that and she teaches him about following his life dreams.”
Hartley also drew inspiration for this role from a Hungarian friend who is very much like Erica, she says. She explains, “I”˜m listening to her voice, trying to get an Austrian accent — not too much, but enough of it so we know who she is.” Hartley also expresses great confidence in director Stephanie Vlahos. “She comes from opera. She’s very aural; she hears the balance between voices. It’s just terrific. We have a great mix of talents.”
Steelman and the Colony’s founder-artistic director Barbara Beckley also draw praise from Hartley, and she expresses gratitude to an anonymous benefactor who recently stepped forth to make a large donation for The Morini Strad — although the Colony still has substantial funds to raise to continue operation in 2013 and beyond.
The Connecticut-born Hartley has been a Los Angeles resident since 1961, though she says “I’ve always been sort of bicoastal. I’ve gone where the work is.” She received exemplary career training when she was 18 at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, working in classics alongside exemplary talents such as John Houseman, Will Geer, and Bert Lahr. She came to Hollywood to do her first film, Ride the High Country in 1962. “Then I began doing a lot of wonderful early television [The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and much more]. I was so grateful for TV and film and commercials, because they have helped to support my addiction — theater — which I have never stopped doing.”
Her stage credits include Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. She has appeared locally with Center Theatre Group (New Theater For Now,Â A Detective Story, The Sisters Rosensweig), and in the national tour of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, directed by Michael Blakemore. The highlight of her 99-Seat theater productions is perhaps the Whitefire Theatre’s 2006 premiere of her autobiographical solo play, If You Get to Bethlehem, You’ve Gone Too Far. It was inspired by Hartley’s 1986 autobiographical book, Breaking the Silence, in which she shared startling details about her emotional struggles in life, including the alcoholism of her parents, and the suicide of her father when she was 14. Hartley said that her longtime friend, Dolores Hart, who left her own successful career as a screen actress in 1963 to become a nun, provided much inspiration for this play, including its title.
In sharing her message of emotional survival, Hartley has become a grief-counsel facilitator, particularly on the topic of suicide prevention, which she finds has been not only enormously gratifying in helping people find their own peace, but continues to be therapeutic for her. “It’s like Indians sitting around a campfire,” she says, “As I hear stories, I finally begin realizing the profound importance of what I learn in my life — listening to other people put words to it,Â I say “˜Oh my god, yes.Â I lived through that.’ I have realized it was safe for me to share. When you come from Connecticut, you don’t reveal family secrets. This has been a real coming out for me.”
She credits her 1984 TV movie, Silence of the Heart, co-starring Chad Lowe as her son, who kills himself, with the beginning of her willingness to tell stories that haunted her for years. The research she did for that role in talking to real-life survivors of suicide victims proved to be eye-opening and cathartic. She reiterates a statement that she has previously made publicly: “One’s deepest wounds, integrated, become one’s greatest power. Helping other survivors [of suicide] is my mission.”
“Art is not just art for its own sake,” she concludes. “You hear politicians talk about entitlements and all that sort of stuff. I needed art as a young person. Art saved my sanity. My soul. I found my community. And it gave me a joyous reason to live.”
The Morini Strad, Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank. Opens Saturday. Thu-Fri, 8 pm, Sat, 3 and 8 p.m, Sun, 2 p.m. (Dark Thanksgiving week.) Tickets: $20-42. www.colonytheatre.org.Â 818-558-7000, ext. 15.
***All The Morini Strad production photos by Michael LamontPrint