Way up north on West End Avenue, Estelle Parsons and her husband, Peter Zimroth, call home a sunny, sprawling Hannah and Her Sisters-type apartment that basks in silver shafts of light from the Hudson. The previous owner built the building, which is plainly from another and better era, so the splendor is authentic. It’s on the uppermost floor, and you must push the “T” button to get there.
“I have no idea what that ‘T’ stands for,” Ms. Parsons confessed when the Observer arrived for an interview. “Top? Thirteenth? Turret?”
Let’s check “Top,” as in Top-of-Her-Game. Ms. Parsons, 86, is living the life you’d want for a committed actress—a spunky media-mix. In 1952, she was Barbara Walters before Barbara Walters was Barbara Walters (a reporter/production assistant/girl Friday for The Today Show). Nine years later, she went Happy Hunting on Broadway as a girl reporter covering the Grace Kelly-Prince Rainier wedding, following that Merman musical with more of the same, plus a little Off-Broadway on the side that earned her a 1963 Theatre World Award for Whisper Into My Good Ear / Mrs. Dally Has a Lover. For her second foray into films, she knocked off a 1967 Oscar as Blanche Barrow of the Bonnie and Clyde gang and, the following year, gave an even better Oscar-nominated performance as the lesbian BFF of spinster schoolmarm Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel. All along, she has done episodic television and even been mother to Roseanne Barr for a few seasons.
But Ms. Parsons has never strayed far—or, at least, for long—from the theater, adding director to her résumé in the process, calling the moves for Marisa Tomei’s Salome and F. Murray Abraham’s Macbeth. In the ’80s, she ran a multi-cultural Shakespearean company for Joe Papp called Shakespeare on Broadway and intends to re-institutionalize that program at the Actors Studio, where she was the artistic director from 1996 to 2001 and continues to teach, direct and moderate.
Not a single Tony can be found in her warm, spacious penthouse. She has lost four—The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way and Morning’s at Seven—but she continues to give Tony-worthy performances that just miss qualifying: The flaky mother of the bride she played in Horton Foote’s The Day Emily Married was done Off-Broadway; with the drug-run, mean-spirited matriarch she played in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, she replaced a Tony winner. That winner, 68-year-old Deanna Dunagan, would have stayed on in the role if producers had let her do six performances a week; Ms. Parsons, 12 years older, did all eight, tearing up and down the stairs like Scarlett chasing Rhett.
When playwright Eric Coble saw Ms. Parsons go through her athletic/artistic paces in August, he knew that he had found the character of Alexandra for his play The Velocity of Autumn, a feisty 79-year-old who’s not above lobbing a few Molotov cocktails if they will keep her out of the nursing home.
The Velocity of Autumn refers to the accelerating speed with which time seems to pass as one ages. Mr. Coble got the idea for the play when he was walking by a neighbor’s house. “Her children felt it was time to move her into an assisted living community, and I knew she didn’t really want to go,” he told the Observer. “I stopped in front of her house one day and just wondered, ‘What’s she thinking in there? What’s going through her mind? What if she really put her foot down and said, “I will not leave!” What are her choices?’ I thought, ‘Well, she could barricade herself in. And what would that be like? What if she made Molotov cocktails and decided to hold herself hostage and say, “If anyone comes in, I’m going to blow the place up?”’ That’s when I thought, ‘There’s my play!’
“Next: ‘Who could possibly talk to this woman?’ I got this image of her youngest son crawling up a tree through a window and trying to figure out something with her—her son who has been estranged from the family for 20 years but now has been brought back by his brother and sister for this mission: to talk some sense into her.” Stephen Spinella co-stars as the prodigal peacemaker.
Alexandra is one of many roles showering octogenarian actresses these days—“all little old lady roles,” as Ms. Parsons summed them up. “There aren’t many of us left. Probably we’re getting more offers now than we did when we were young. I’m really not too interested in picking and choosing because I do have plenty to do. I’m pitched a lot of parts I don’t want to do, but this one—right away, I thought, ‘Wow! She’s really very different. You don’t see this character around much. It’ll be fun to try it.’”
Neither actress nor character can be counted on to go gentle into that good night. “That’s what interested me: she’s dynamic, taking the issue into her own hands. That’s the hardest thing when you get old—to be decisive. You tend to let others decide what you’re going to do or who you are. She’s not going to have any of that.
“It certainly seems to be a perfect part for me, in some way. I can’t really tell you how, but I don’t seem to be able to make mistakes with it.” When she is performing a character, Ms. Parsons said, she will “do whatever comes to me, then decide if it’s right or wrong. With her, [it all comes] out of me. I never think, ‘Oh, she’d not do that.’ It’s weird because it feels I’m not acting—but, of course, I am!”
This is the 30th Broadway show for the Ms. Parsons—her 54th if you count Off-Broadway. “I was moderating at the Actors Studio the other morning and said that I felt like I’d been on Broadway too much, that I should say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m coming back. I played in August, Good People, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and here I come again, folks!’ I’m in overtime, that’s for sure. But I saw on the Oscars that Angela [Lansbury] is 88 and she’s doing Blithe Spirit now in the West End. I guess you just keep on truckin’.
“I don’t always have high hopes for things I do, but I have high hopes for this play. I think it’s really amazing, and I really love the humor in it—that’s the best part for me. I just think of it as stand-up. She talks that way. She’s that kind of person—big fantasy life going on. It works, and it’s really lovely to do something audiences love.”