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Colleen Dewhurst, An Autobiography

Written with and completed by Tom Viola

I read this patchwork of an autobiography by Colleen Dewhurst and her long-time friend and associate Tom Viola just as the legendary Circle of the Square theater sank into yet another coma of insolvency. The Circle, as it was fondly known through its forty-five year history, nurtured and was nurtured by talented and dedicated performers like Dewhurst and George C. Scott whom she met during a revival of Edwin Justin Mayer's Children of Darkness and ended up marrying not once but twice. Thus reading this book at this particular time was both a sad and a happy experience--sad because the theater, like the husky-voiced actress with the mile-wide smile, are gone; happy because the book, besides bringing back memories of some Dewhurst performances I was fortunate enough to see, celebrates the life of a genuinely nice human being who happened to be a consummate theater professional.

Colleen Dewhurst was a woman of many accomplishments. Her talent as stage and small screen actress brought her two Obies, two Tonys and four Emmys. Her menschlichkeit and sense of humor made her a giving mother and treasured friend to many, a valued social activist who gave her time and prestige unstintingly to both Actors Equity and the Actors' Fund of America. Not for her the me-me-me ego-centered life of so many show business personalities. Not for her, the bitter rancor that often follows a marriage on the rocks.

One of the many endearing personal anecdotes in this book is prompted by a reporter who interviewed Dewhurst at her Farm in exurban New York and made a big deal of a wall with pictures of family and friends and dogs that included both of her ex-husbands. That wall was a big deal in what it said about Dewhurst's ability to grow and change and to experience pain without losing her ability to enjoy life. "Every three or four years, or whenever we feel energetic, we remove the glass (covering that picture wall) and update our lives with other pictures," she writes. "Did this interviewer not understand that G.C. (George C. Scott) is the boy's father! Was I to go through and cut his face neatly out of all family pictures. . .and remove pictures in some of his best roles? My sons loved that wall. . .It was--and is--their history and their inheritance. . .All I hope is that they understand that their mother and their father loved them and wanted them and that we love each other. . ."

That picture wall, and the many friends who graced it and shared her life at the marvelously messy Farm which Dewhurst called home, also explains why even after several decades of note taking and tape recording, this autobiography remained incomplete when she died of cervical cancer in 1991. This was a woman, whose professional passions were fully matched by her passion for enjoying life and laughter. Not surprisingly, she found it easier to live her life than to tell or write about it. And yet, while anything could distract her from completing the book she had contracted to do, the fact that her distractions were so people-oriented helped to transform the incomplete manuscript she left into a combination memoir and multiple eulogy to a much loved and admired friend, mother and colleague.

The resulting multiple collaboration is not a scholarly study of the acting profession nor is it one of those tell-all gossip tracts that leaves no poisonous dart unsent. As with a Pinter play you learn much from the pauses or blanks left by this very private person in a very public profession. While the more than thirty people whose interviews are patched into this autobiographical quilt (including Maureen Stapleton whose autobiography was reviewed here some time ago--A Hell Of a Life) do touch on the stormier aspects of her two marriages to George C. Scott, the end result is a text that stands primarily as a very human story of a an ordinary woman blessed with extraordinary warmth and talent. It is her love for the theater in particular and life generally that lends a warm glow to the text.

Despite the fact that the book recounts her training and growth as an actress, there's little detail about how the acting urge actually took hold of her. We do meet all the mentors (like Harold Clurman) and colleagues (like Joe Papp and Jose Quintero) as well as the two American playwrights with whose work she became most closely identified (Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee). We're also privy to her triumphs, most notably her star turn in the 1974 Circle in the Square revival of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten when she was 49 years old. Unfortunately, movies made of O'Neill plays in which she performed so memorably, feature other actors those too young to have seen Dewhurst in some of her best known roles will have to content themselves with re-runs featuring her Emmy-winning stint as Murphy Brown's mother--or as the distinctive voice on several cassettes (listed below with book buying information).--Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Colleen Dewhurst is published by Scribner and logs in at 532 pages.

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