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“I knew the film world had already passed me by because I was too old,” she says. “Women my age or women past the age of 40 — forget it! Just forget it! Even the women who are 40 are playing 60.”
She also began focusing on solo shows about conflicted women, including the autobiographical voices of Anne Sexton and Marlene Dietrich. However, during her highly acclaimed 1985 performance as Sexton in . . . about Anne, a show Jens created and directed from the poet’s works, she felt a crushing depression from alcohol. Shortly afterward she stopped drinking.
Jens is open about her alcoholism, but doesn’t hit visitors over the head with her sobriety. Nor does she regret missing the breaks that could have put her on Hollywood’s A-list.
“All those people I knew were addicted,” Jens says. “I come from a generation that didn’t know that alcoholism was a disease. Back then it was a moral issue — if you drank a lot you were morally weak. So we really had something to deal with. Some of us were able to survive it and some of us died young.”
But Jens would face more adversity than overcoming her alcoholism. Her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a condition that prevented Jens from taking New York stage work. Teaching acting, she says, kept her off the streets — that, and one particular Hollywood demigod.
“Aaron Spelling saved me!” Jens says. “I appeared in one episode of a series that didn’t get picked up. But he had to pay me for 10 and that paid for my house in Silver Lake.” Jens cared for her mother for 17 years there before she passed away. Jens still lives and teaches in Silver Lake, and walks around the neighborhood’s reservoir every morning.
“I feel like I live in a little Greek fishing village,” she says of her community.
By a strange twist, Jens appeared last year as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted matriarch in Leipzig at West Hollywood’s Lee Strasberg Institute, a role for which she proved more than prepared. Today, she marvels at still having an acting career and, unlike many theater professionals, young and old, gets out to see local plays — mostly because her students are in them.
“Oh, it’s horrible!” she says of most of the work she sees. “Yet it’s so important. Art always takes place on the edges, and 99-seat theaters are the edges. We’ve got to hold on to them, they’re very important.”
After a while, company members begin drifting in, including playwright Kemble and lighting designer J. Kent Inasy, who lit Jens’ very first performance of . . . about Anne at Paul Verdier’s Stages Theatre Center.
“Television has destroyed the theater and the quality of acting because it’s [reduced] everything to the level of sitcom,” Jens says just before the rehearsal starts. “You’re going to find that this play is a real theater piece — the acting cannot be little, it’s big stuff.” In other words, bigger than life.
BAD HURT ON CEDAR STREET | By MARK KEMBLE | At GREENWAY COURT THEATRE, ?544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. | Through Feb. 24 | (323) 655-7679