By D. A. Blackburn
Actress and Detroit native Elaine Stritch is a woman known for brash wit and fiery disposition. At 84, with a resume that reads like a history of entertainment on both coasts and abroad, the award-winning performer is as bawdy, candid and vivacious as ever. She returns home this month for two performances of A. R. Gurney’s “Ancestral Voices,” April 17 and 18, to benefit the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts and the Restore The Horse Foundation, an effort to refurbish a century-old barn on Belle Isle.
“A. R. Gurney is a favorite author of mine. I did ‘Love Letters’ with Jason Robards in New York and touring, and we had a wonderful time,” said Stritch from her suite in New York. “It’s a beautiful script, ‘Love Letters,’ and my favorite thing about it – as any actress worth her salt will tell you – you don’t have to memorize anything, because it’s meant to be read. Well, so is ‘Ancestral Voices,’ and it’s a beautiful play. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.”
Joining Stritch for the production will be actors Edward and Star Herrmann, Blanche frontman John Dan Miller and General Motors Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz. Though a longtime friend of the Herrmanns, “Ancestral Voices” will mark the first time she has performed with anyone involved.
The benefit, which includes a strolling supper and a question-and-answer segment with the stars, will all take place in Music Hall’s Jazz Cafe, rather than the theater’s main stage, making it an intimate opportunity for just 100 patrons per night.
It’s a space that Stritch knows well. “I’ve done ‘Elaine Stritch At Liberty’ there twice. I’m used to it, and I’m sure that it will work beautifully in that small space.”
At its core, “Ancestral Voices” is a subtly comic story about family, set in Buffalo, N.Y., between the 1940s and 1960s. Family is a theme that resonates deeply with Stritch. Having grown up in the area, in a family with strong ties to the auto industry, she’s quick to reminisce about her father, and looking forward to seeing two sisters (and a large extended family) who still reside in Michigan. She’s also excited to bring some good cheer to the city, and to discuss the woes facing its biggest industry.
“I had a very good friend of mine say a very nice thing to me yesterday. They said, ‘Well you’re on your way, it’ll cheer up the automotive industry.’ I hope so,” said Stritch. “My father used to say to me, ‘If anything happens to General Motors we might as well all throw the chips in.’ I don’t know if he was right about that or not, but I have great faith in the automotive industry and I think it’ll hang in and survive, and rise to new heights. I’m absolutely 100 percent convinced that if there’s anything I believe in in this world it’s that good things come out of bad things. So, you know, we learn and improve when shit happens.”
Unlike the big three, Stritch’s future looks certain – and bright. Ongoing guest appearances on NBC’s “30 Rock,” and a completely new cabaret act she’s writing, “Elaine Stritch At Home at the Carlisle; A Brand New Cabaret, God Help Me,” have her scheduled well into 2010, when she plans to take a long-awaited vacation.
“I have never been on a vacation. I have never been to an airport, or to a railroad station or gotten into a car where there wasn’t a stage manager involved,” said Stritch. “I’d like to do this, just go away to some posh place where I never have to lift a finger. I’ve never been to Bermuda. It’s very high on the list.”
But even with a full schedule for the foreseeable future, Stritch is mindful of the fans that have helped bring her success. “The gay community, I find highly intellectual and extremely sensitive and loaded with humor. So thank god they like me.”
Glad it’s mutual, Elaine.
6:30 p.m. April 17-18 at the Jazz Cafe at Music Hall, 350 Madison St., Detroit. $175, which includes a play-themed supper and a Q-and-A with the actors. 313-887-8500. http://www.musichall.org