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Walking the walk

TV’s Judith Light carves out space for life on the stage

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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About 10 years ago, Judith Light stood at a crossroads in her career. A famous fixture on television for more than two decades, Light - who now plays the wickedly acerbic matriarch Claire Mead on ABC’s “Ugly Betty’’ - was then best known for her eight-season run as uptight ad exec Angela Bower on the ’80s sitcom “Who’s the Boss?’’ and an Emmy Award-winning turn on the soap “One Life to Live.’’ By the late ’90s, however, she had ceased pushing herself outside her comfort zone, she says, relying instead on TV pilots and movies of the week.

Despite a classically trained theater background, including a stint on Broadway in a 1975 production of “A Doll’s House,’’ Light had spent more than 22 years away from the stage. But she was jolted out of her complacency by her longtime manager and close friend, Herb Hamsher, after she declined a part in a play that she claimed wasn’t the right fit. He disagreed and accused her of running scared from a challenge.

“I took that in and realized, oh wow, he’s absolutely right. I was getting into habits that were not serving me in terms of my work. I knew that unless I went back to the theater, I was going to keep digging myself in even further,’’ says Light by phone from Los Angeles, where she is on a two-week hiatus from A.R. Gurney’s “Children,’’ which just concluded a run at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut before it reboots at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this week, beginning July 1.

An ardent AIDS and gay-rights activist, Light recognized that she was giving a lot of lip service to the “courageous and powerful’’ way in which her gay and lesbian friends lived their lives. “I realized: I’m not living my life like the people who inspired me in the first place. I’m talking the talk, but I’m not walking the walk,’’ she recalls. “I had lost my courage, and I had to do something about it because I didn’t like the way I was operating.’’

So she decided to take the next stage part that came her way, stepping into the role of the caustic, cancer-stricken poetry scholar in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit’’ in 1999. For the part, Light had to shave off her famously flowing locks, be completely bald for a year, and appear naked onstage. She also had to go back in front of the New York critics while tackling the grueling mental task of playing a woman who’s slowly dying.

“It was absolutely terrifying at the time,’’ recalls Light, 60. “But Herb said to me, ‘This is a huge opportunity - a chance to change people’s perception of you and to change your own thoughts about yourself and your work.’ ’’

The gamble turned out to be a watershed moment in her career. She performed the play off Broadway and on a national tour that came to the Wilbur Theatre in 2000, winning rapturous applause, with critics calling her work “transformative’’ and “profound.’’ Many remarked that Light’s talent had been missing from the theater for far too long. Her success in “Wit’’ led to a series of glowingly reviewed stage performances, including playing that mercurial head case Hedda Gabler in Washington, D.C.

“That period stands as sort of the transition point in my life - one that was extremely empowering,’’ she says. “It was incredibly exhilarating and gave me a basis with which to move forward in my life and in my work.’’

Despite a busy TV schedule, which includes her acclaimed work on “Ugly Betty’’ and occasional guest appearances as Judge Donnelly on “Law & Order: SVU,’’ Light has continued to carve out space for theater.

In “Children,’’ she plays the wry matriarch of an icy WASP clan whose members reunite for a weekend at their summer home on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Light’s character, Mother, has some surprising news to announce that will affect all of their lives, but her children are struggling to figure out their own futures while coming to terms with the past. Meanwhile, the estranged golden boy, Pokey, who is never seen onstage, maintains a gravitational pull over the entire family.

One of Gurney’s masterful dissections of WASP behavior and mores, the play exposes the long-held secrets, illusions, and deeply concealed desires with which this dysfunctional family has been living.

“[Gurney] has created this world of people who are forced out of their denial,’’ says Light. “That was the thing that was most important to me: to show how we tend to live in life. I look at my own levels of denial and how I had to be pulled out of it.’’

The play has another strong resonance for the actress. In April, she lost her own mother, with whom she had become increasingly close, after a long illness. But because Light was flying back and forth to Florida to care for her in her dying days, she had been reluctant to take the part in “Children.’’

“I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to not do the play because of her,’’ says Light. “Because she had been so supportive of my career all of my life.’’

Chatting in person after a performance in Westport and later over the phone, Light evinces all those traits that people typically use to describe her. She’s warm, generous, and remarkably forthcoming about her life.

“She’s pure heaven as a person and pure heaven as an actress,’’ says “Children’’ director John Tillinger. “And to be blunt about it, she likes to work. There are some actresses that got to a certain point in their careers and in their financial circumstances who think, ‘Why the heck should I do 24 performances for little money up in Westport?’ ’’

Tillinger says that Light channels WASP behavior perfectly: “She really nails their specific way of showing pain, which is restrained rather than weeping all over the place. She breaks down onstage, but it’s done with a very delicate take.’’

Light admits to identifying deeply with her character’s need to be in the driver’s seat. In fact, the actress seems to have developed a penchant for playing strong-willed women who have a vigorous desire for control but end up in predicaments where they’re no longer in command of their fate.

“It’s really true that we don’t have any control and we live under the illusion that we do. It’s a false way to look at life,’’ she says. “So the truth is, I’m constantly in a process of learning to let go. And I think these women that I have portrayed are helping me to do that.’’

CHILDREN

At Williamstown Theatre Festival, July 1-12. Tickets: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org

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