It had rained all morning in Manhattan that Sunday when Salome Jens met Jack Kennedy, just as he was considering running for his party’s presidential nomination. With an appointment to show a photographer a stack of pictures of herself, the young actress kept her shoes tucked under her arm as she entered a brunch party at a Madison Avenue mansion.
“They were pointed and I didn’t want them to curl up,” Jens says.
The Massachusetts senator was paying a social call and became fascinated by Jens’ description of her hardscrabble upbringing in Milwaukee and how she was now struggling to hold down two jobs while attending classes. Kennedy made her promise to start reading the New York Times editorial page.
“You are political,” he told Jens. “You transform the way people perceive themselves in their lives and it’s important for you to know what’s going on.”
Over the years, Kennedy’s advice became as important to the actress as any given her by Joe Papp or Harold Clurman. Jens has told this story before — not as an exercise in name-dropping or “storytelling” (a term that makes her cringe), but to emphasize her epiphany.
“It really hit me,” Jens says today, “because I then knew that what I did was bigger than me. Unless something’s bigger than you, it cannot work.”
“Bigger than life” is the reputation most actors seek, but it’s a fit Jens has grown into only through time and hard work. Without trying or realizing it, she has become Los Angeles’ grande dame of theater, an icon and resource who lives and teaches in the middle of town rather than having migrated to the suburbs.
“We don’t have a ‘national theater,’ ” says playwright Donald Freed, in whose plays Jens has appeared, “but in a way, she is our national theater.”
She scored early supporting triumphs on Broadway and off, most notably in 1960 as the Pony Girl in the José Quintero–staged production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, and as Helga in the 1964 world premiere of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.
Jens remains a striking figure at 71, blond hair falling lightly about the shoulders of her black pantsuit. Her conversation resonates with a stage refinement that is the signature of a style that stressed articulation and clarity — word contractions in her speech are as rare as a dropped “g.”
This morning, she is sitting in the front row of the Greenway Court Theatre, an hour before she begins directing rehearsals for Mark Kemble’s Bad Hurt on Cedar Street. A dog belonging to set designer James Eric forages near his master’s creation of a suite of bare-bones rooms where the action of Bad Hurt on Cedar Street takes place. Eric’s low-rent milieu might be called Bed, Bath and Beneath, a place whose dowdy walls are only slightly relieved by the cut-out magazine photos of animals that are taped on them. Playwright Kemble has written plays about people who are not so much caught on the horns of a dilemma as impaled by them. Names, which premiered in 1995 at L.A.’s Matrix Theatre before receiving an off-Broadway opening from the American Jewish Theater, was a morally claustrophobic thriller in which Stella Adler, John Garfield and other members of New York’s pioneering Group Theatre wrestled with the coming blacklist after World War II. A Comfortable Truth, which premiered locally in 2004 at the Lee Strasberg Institute,dealt with a pedophile Catholic priest and the social complicity in which he operated. Bad Hurt on Cedar Street, however, which receives its world premiere this week, is a far more personal family story, set in Providence, Rhode Island, during an Easter weekend in 2001. “What attracted me to this play,” says Jens, “is that it is about two generations of war heroes and the price the family has paid for two wars. This family is living with lies that have never been exposed. The only thing a human being can’t handle is a lie, and the family begins to disintegrate from the withholding of the truth. Only when this gets revealed is this family able to heal and love again.”
Jens knows all about that process. She came to New York in the late 1950s, and almost from the start she was blessed with good fortune and professional instruction, getting quickly accepted into the Actors Studio class whose members included Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley. And, in a few years, she would find herself working side by side with such stage and dance legends as Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Martha Graham.
But she also found herself socializing with stellar drinkers, including actors Jason Robards and Ralph Meeker — the tragic Midwestern hunk to whom Jens was married for two years. Although she had been what she calls “a goody-goody girl,” Jens started a love affair with martinis when she reached her mid-20s.
“Who ever went for coffee?” she says of New York’s theater world of the 1950s and ’60s. “You’d go for drinks!”
Jens went on from glowing reviews of her performance in an early off-Broadway production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano to become a familiar face on New York stages. Most Americans recognize her from decades of television (she enjoys a cult following from her role as the Female Shapeshifter in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine),and connoisseurs of outsider films know her from Angel Baby and Seconds. When middle age kicked in, so did Jens’ survival instincts, and she turned to directing and to teaching acting.
“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