Actor-director Judith Ivey
makes a long-delayed return.
Judith Ivey’s 13-year-old son, Tom, recently asked her, “You were a celebrity?” Her answer: “Yeah, at one point.”
The 55-year-old actor’s matter-of-fact candor jells with how Northlight’s B.J. Jones describes her: “She’s just a mensch. And in this business, that’s rare.” Jones should know. It was thanks to Ivey’s recommendation that, in 1977, he got his first acting gig at the theater (then the Evanston Theatre Company), where he now serves as artistic director. According to Jones, such collegial generosity is why “within the business, she’s extraordinarily well respected.” Almost 30 years since Ivey left Chicago, Jones has asked her back to Northlight to direct Theresa Rebeck’s one-woman show Bad Dates, in which a middle-aged, shoe-obsessed divorcée returns to the dating game.
When the Texas native attended Illinois State University, she was a couple of years older than the students who would go on to form Steppenwolf Theatre Company (“so I was the leading lady when they were playing the smaller parts,” Ivey says). She worked as a Chicago stage and commercial actor from 1973 to 1978. After leaving, she won two Tony Awards—for Steaming in 1983 and Hurlyburly in 1985—and worked steadily onscreen: from her first feature film, Harry and Son, with Paul Newman (“I almost couldn’t speak I was so nervous, and I had to play someone who seduced him, no less”) to the last season of Designing Women to, most recently, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.
What was the Chicago theater scene like in the ’70s?
Oh, it was hopping. It had begun to reach some national recognition; Chicago was a place to go and really start a career. At that time you couldn’t shoot movies because the first Mayor Daley felt like they always portrayed Chicago in a bad light, so he was very difficult about that, so there was very little filmmaking at the time. And he died the year I moved to New York, and then there was a state commission and it opened all up, and they started making movies. But there was a ton of commercial and industrial work, so I made a very good living. And I worked in the theater all the time, went from play to play to play.
Then why’d you move to New York?
To be honest, it’s what I call the regional-theater disease. They kept bringing young actresses from New York to play the leading ladies, and in two instances—this was at the Goodman Theatre at that time—they ended up being disappointed in them and came to me privately and said, “We may fire this actress. Would you take over the part if we do?” And of course my answer was, “Yes.” And they would end up not firing her and then just letting that role not be done as well. And then the next production would come up, and they would still go to New York and cast yet another actress that, to be honest, wasn’t as good as I was. And so I thought, Well, I’m gonna go to New York and see if I can at least get a job to come back to Chicago, you know. And I never did. I came back once when we were trying out Hurlyburly, and that’s really the only time I’ve been back—much to my dismay, really, ’cause I love Chicago.
And you’ve stayed in New York ever since?
Yeah. And then I became one of those New York actresses that they hired [Laughing] to go to regional theaters.
You’ve come to be known for performing and directing solo shows. What draws you to them?
The irony is I’ve always hated one-person shows. I thought, Why are you talking to me? I’m not in your room, you know. I’m determined, whenever I’ve been asked to direct them, to give it a universe where I understand why somebody is standing onstage talking to us.
Why should we see your play?
We had several men at Laguna Playhouse [where Bad Dates played last year] say, “I was so dreading coming with my wife; I thought she was dragging me to see a chick play. But I so related to it.” Everybody starts telling you about their bad dates. It’s not a hugely thought-provoking play, but I think it’s very moving and high-larious.
Northlight goes on Bad Dates. See Resident companies.