Like all great plays with universal themes, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard speaks to each new generation in a very personal way. The central role of Madame Ranevsky remains high on the list of all great actors. Jane Alexander, a lauded actress of both stage and screen, is playing Ranevsky for New Jersey's McCarter Theater in a production (March 28-April 16) newly adapted and directed by the theater's artistic director, Emily Mann. If Mann has succeeded, we will see new life breathed into the Old World, and a clearer vision of Russian aristocracy. When I tell Alexander that I can't think of anyone I would like to see more in the role, she says, "I'm here because of Emily," adding, "I'm glad I'm doing it at this time of my life and not ten years earlier. Emily has made me feel that I'm in the right place at the right time. Ever since I was a teenager, I had a list of parts I wanted to play in my life and I'm getting down to the end."

Letting go of the old ways to prepare for the new is a state of consciousness that has plagued individuals since Eden. This, the final play of Chekhov, focuses on the cultural and economic changes that devastate the household of Madame Ranevsky, as she whirls and waltzes through her disappearing universe. Tossing money and charm about like rose petals at a wedding, Ranevsky equates the delusions of our day with those in her own. Refusing to allow her estate to be turned into a summer colony and unable to see that her squandering and extravagances are destroying her family, Madame Ranevsky has always been considered a challenging role.

I asked Alexander if she was just a little intimated by the role played by such dramatic divas as Alla Nazimova, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Kim Stanley, Irene Worth and Olympia Dukakis, to name but a few. She answers: "The interesting thing about Ranevsky is that she appears as just one member of an ensemble. As such, one is more likely to remember a great production of a Chekhov play such as The Cherry Orchard, rather than one particular performance," says Alexander, who remembers one memorable production in which she played Irina in The Three Sisters, at the Arena Stage in Washington. "I really should have played Masha; I wasn't really right for Irina," she says through her laughter, ruefully adding, "and now I'll never get to play Nina in The Seagull. As opposed to now, I always felt that I was never in the right place at the right time. I've known Emily for years, but I've never worked with her before. So when she called and said, `I want to you play Ranevsky,' I said yes." Resumes often tell a lot, if not everything, about an actor's career. As Alexander's resume is notable for its wealth of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Pinter, Shaw, Coward, and O'Neill, I asked Alexander if her many high-toned credits were there by her own design, or had agents, directors and the like tended not to see her playing trailer trash in a sleazy pot-boiler? Alexander laughs aloud, happy to tell me that, "I produced and starred in a small film called `Square Dance' (1984). It was Winona Ryder's first film, and I was Texas trash.

"When I was a young actress I was never an ingenue, so I had to wait a long time to get the leading roles. Instead of staying in New York and waiting for the big break, I went out of town to work in regional theaters."

It was at Washington's Arena stage that Alexander performed in fifteen plays that culminated with The Great White Hope, directed by her husband-to-be, Edwin Sherin. It was that play starring James Earl Jones, as fighter Jack Jefferson, that earned Alexander her Tony Award for Best Actress in 1968, when the play moved to Broadway. In it, Alexander played Jefferson's mistress, the part she recreated in the film version. Thirty-two years later, Sherin is still directing Alexander. Their most recent collaboration: Sherin directed Alexander in the recent two-hour special of "Law and Order." No stranger to television, Alexander has given memorable performances in "Playing for Time," (Emmy), "Eleanor and Franklin" (Emmy nomination), and "The White House Years" (TV Critics Circle Award).

While Alexander can be proud of her film roles, including her Academy Award-nominated performances in "Testament" (1985), "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), "All the President's Men" (1976), and "The Great White Hope" (1970), she says, "Although I really wanted to get involved in the world of films, it didn't happen for me. Anyone who has seen Alexander, as Nurse Edna in "The Cider House Rules" can only wonder why another nomination wasn't forthcoming.

Although Alexander has chalked up a lucky thirteen (fourteen if you count "standby" for A Thousand Clowns in 1963) Broadway roles, including acclaimed performances in 6 Rms Riv Vu, (1972), Night of the Iguana (1988), Shadowlands (1990) and The Visit (1991), it was The Sisters Rosensweig (1993) that would act as a finale to one phase of her career. It would be a move that pleased many who knew Alexander as a fighter for such causes as Wildlife Conservation International, Project Greenhope, the National Stroke Association and Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament. It was fortuitous that Alexander would embark on a sabbatical from acting and take her voice to another stage. This, as a champion for the entire arts community of America, in the role of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I wondered if Alexander, in retrospect, found the experience frustrating, satisfying, or a combination of both. "Because The Great White Hope was an N.E.A. baby, and it was begun with an N.E.A. grant, I really thought I might be able to contribute to the N.E.A. I was finishing up a year's run in a delicious role in The Sisters Rosensweig, and I really didn't think there was anything coming up. I was also ready to do something else," says Alexander, crediting Senator Pell of Rhode Island for proposing her for the position. Alexander expresses her excitement about the book she has written about her four years in Washington. "It's called 'Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics,' and it comes out in June," in which Alexander will undoubtedly reveal "the problems with politicians in Washington," and how she had to deal with a forty-five percent cut in the budget. "Not only has it not gone up, but has been reduced another million dollars," says Alexander, who wants people to know that "the triumph is that we kept it alive."

Alexander's stage career is once more alive as well. "Now that I'm playing Ranevsky, there are only two more roles on my list: Madame Arkadina (The Seagull and Mrs. Alving (Ghosts), says Alexander, who, although she will be asked to put on the forced smiles and half hearted regrets of Madame Ranevsky's wasteful life, can also put on the face of an actor who knows she in the right place at the right time.


Key Subjects: 
Alexander, Jane; Cherry Orchard; McCarter Theater; Anton Chekhov
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
Ellis Nassour's recounting of a 1998 speech by Jane Alexander may also be found in TotalTheater's Periodica section.
March 2000
The Actress & N.E.A. Leader Takes On Chekhov