Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A perfomer's life.

I have only a partial knowledge of Sylvia's career -- indeed, of her life -- but I know the moments she was most proud of. She started as a dancer -- the name Martha Graham has come up in conversation -- and there's certainly a framed picture in her apartment of a very young and somewhat scantily clad Sylvia, caught at the apogee of a very impressive and well-formed leap.

Her most prominent role as an actress was playing Arlo Guthrie's mother -- Woody Guthrie's wife, who becomes Woody's widow during the story -- in Arthur Penn's film of Alice's Restaurant. She also had parts in a Patrick Swayze movie and, memorably, in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, playing a "hostility victim" during a brief fantasy scene. She did soaps and some other TV stuff, and even during the time I knew her, she took part in shorts by NYU film students and made a sitcom pilot that wasn't picked up.

[Added later] Here's a moment from Alice's Restaurant, with the added benefit of a great song at the beginning from Pete Seeger:

It was her stage work that she was most proud of -- mentioning with pride that she created the role in The Whales of August that was played by Lillian Gish in the eventual movie version -- and among her anecdotes were stories of acting with the Lunts and Edward G. Robinson. Plays by Shakespeare (she loved the role of the Duchess of York in "Richard II"), Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams feature in her resume. Her last appearance (which I missed, to my eternal regret) was as Henry Higgins's mother in an Off-Broadway Pygmalion in 1993.

Together, we recorded biography, creepy science fiction, young adult, literary fiction, works by Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein, and poetry -- Ted Hughes's translations of Ovid (to my private peevishness, because I had voiced all the Hughes recordings up to that point). She was always up to it, and couldn't contain her glee when she nailed a particularly challenging passage or sentiment.

We also did live readings at the library, and I was paired with Sylvia once in reading 20th century English poetry. I did get Hughes this time, plus Larkin, while she had Auden. (And Eliot? Can't remember.) As a finale, I had taken Auden's "Night Mail," originally written as film narration over Britten's music, and split it between two voices, a complex duologue of interlocking rhythm and fluctuating pace. I set aside time to practice with her, since she was unfamiliar with the poem. I needn't have bothered. She was already better than me in the first cold reading.

At another of the readings, Susan*, the studio director, had given Sylvia "Rockaby," a testing piece by Beckett, tough for any actor, let alone one in her nineties. Sylvia was so good that she could have walked out of that meeting room on 20th Street and delivered the same performance at any off-Broadway location.

And then, her most famous role, seen and loved by millions. At 93, Sylvia got a commercial, for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. (Alas, no amount of searching through YouTube and other websites has located it.) As I recall, it began with a tight close-up of her face, lit for glorious black-and-white, delivering a line that went something like: "I survived the depression, two husbands . . . and miniskirts." [Found it much later. See: Another curtain call.] A moment of fame that got her recognized on the streets of New York.

*Susan Mosakowski worked continually to expand the role of the Audiobook studio. New York theater offered an extraordinary pool of voice-over and performing talent willing to volunteer their time for the blind and visually handicapped, and Susan created many opportunities for the library's patrons to enjoy live performances and readings at the 20th Street branch. She was well qualified to do so -- in addition to her role as director, Susan was and is a successful playwright, whose works have been performed off-Broadway and around the country, and with her husband, the inordinately talented Matthew Maguire, founded the Creation Production Company.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing woman! And what a wonderful friend you are!