Frances Sternhagen is a veteran of stage, film and television, but a reluctant member of the instant messaging/texting population. "We live in a world that's so foreign to me," said the soft-spoken Tony winner and current cast member of THE MADRID, a dramedy starring Edie Falco.
Sternhagen explained why she's now fairly comfortable with handheld communication devices. "I just did it for practical reasons, so people don't think I've left the business or am dead," she said with a laugh in a recent interview.
THE MADRID stars Edie Falco as Martha, and features Sternhagen as Rose, Martha's mother. The play centers on Martha's midlife crisis and abandonment of her family to live in a seedy apartment building named THE MADRID. Rose is a sympathetic and often funny character who tries to make sense of her daughter's transgression.
"We started rehearsal in January and we spent quite awhile in a wonderful studio space used by several theaters," Sternhagen said of the Midtown studio. Speaking of space, Sternhagen praised the design team for the play's creative use of every corner of the mid-sized stage. "They used every part of the stage to convey the complexities of the characters' journey," said the octogenarian.
The play has no easy answers as to why Martha has decided to ditch her husband, daughter and her job as a kindergarten teacher. "My feeling is this woman never had a chance to do what she ultimately urges her own daughter to do," she said of Martha's personal declaration of independence. "She is finally taking this time of her life to do what she wants to do and that's what she finally did." Sternhagen wouldn't necessarily advocate women take leave of their families, but she heartily commiserated with Martha.
"We should all do these things before we have responsibility for other people in our lives," she added. That's not to say, she explained, you should move into a dumpy apartment downtown, "but we should do these things while we're still free and can have adventures." Not that she's condoning Martha's ultimate flirtation with a more self-centered existence.
"I don't justify it really. This is a situation that I probably wouldn't do myself and nobody I know would probably do it either. She just had to do something," Sternhagen said.
"I think she says something to her husband like: 'I could never understand your accepting the endlessness of things,'" she said. "Some people live it and some people can't stand it. People do what they have to do."
Sternhagen's gentle forbearance in light of disintegrating family ties is typical of how she approaches each role she plays, whether in OUTLAND, starring Sean Connery, or Bunny, "the mother-in-law from hell" in SEX AND THE CITY, for which she is most recognized by women in their 30s.
Rose brings ample opportunity for her to shine a humorous beam on her stage family. "I love to bring humor into the role, and my scene in the hospital is fun," Sternhagen said. "Any time I find those kinds of moments I enjoy it, and the older you get, the more you welcome the humor. And the cast I'm very fond of, too."
She is hopeful that younger audience members will start filling theater seats once they become more affordable. "Some theaters have nights when the cost of a ticket is only $30 or $20 and who wouldn't appreciate that?" Sternhagen said. "That's the only way they are getting in to see shows." She recalled her youth spent seeing live theater. "We paid $2.50 for a show," she said with incredulity in her voice. "Of course Off Broadway is cheaper, too. I don't get paid much in smaller theaters, though," she reflected. "If the material is good it's worth doing anyway."
Sternhagen was awarded a Tony award for her role in THE HEIRESS (which has again been revived) and she had fond memories from that time. "THE HEIRESS was a wonderful production. We were very lucky it was a full-scale production - as opposed to an Off Broadway vehicle - and we were able to make a good living from it," she said.
Roles she would like to tackle? "I'm too old to do most of the things I want to do, but I'd love to do a Chekov play," she said, "any of them. He was wonderfully perceptive."