Calista Flockhart on playing a storied role by Edward Albee

Calista Flockhart takes to the stage as the larger-than-life Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at Geffen Playhouse.

(Jessica Pons/For The Times)

Calista Flockhart sits on the couch in the library at the front of her house surrounded by three gently snoring dogs. A fourth — a mild-mannered pit bull named Coco (short for Coconut) — presses up against her back, arching her neck, angling for a belly rub.

“She’s my meeting girl,” Flockhart says of Coco, a rescue, like the others.

Flockhart says she’s been fostering dogs for as long as she can remember. She was fostering two of her sleeping companions when her husband, Harrison Ford (a licensed pilot), had a horrible plane crash in 2015.

“And so we kept them because we all needed them. And they needed us, or we needed them more than they needed us probably,” Flockhart says of the pups, warmly rubbing Coco’s head and then looking up again, remembering a different question had been asked. “Where were we? Oh, what was I talking about?

She smiles — her eyes bright and alert, her manner easy and warm. Ella’s Flockhart is as kind and gentle with her guests as she is with her dogs. She is talking about her role as Martha in the Geffen Playhouse’s upcoming production of Edward Albee’s classic play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” but she often stops speaking about herself to check in to see if the coffee is still warm or if the dogs need another head scratch.

When she digs back into questions concerning herself and her motivations for taking on one of the theater’s most explosive and challenging female roles, she is thoughtful and somewhat circumspect.

“Whenever I did a play, I was usually the ingenue and one of the youngest people in the cast. And now I’m definitely the oldest person in the cast. And I am not the ingenue,” she says with a smile. “And that’s really fun and exciting. I could never play Martha without all the life experience. So it feels pretty wonderful.”

When Flockhart steps onstage for opening night, April 28, it will have been 20 years since she’s been in a play. This is, she says, largely by design. She to forgo the kind of frenzied work schedule that would decide to take her away from the daily task of raising her son from her, Liam.

She became a mother during her last year of filming her smash-hit TV show, “Ally McBeal,” created by David E. Kelley and for which she won a Golden Globe for actress in a musical or comedy series. She says she didn’t have family obligations for the bulk of the time she was filming that show and recalls that the schedule — making 23 episodes a year — was relentless.

Calista Flockhart, right, as Ally and Peter MacNicol as John in

Calista Flockhart, right, as Ally and Peter MacNicol as John in “Ally McBeal” in 1998.

(FOX)

“It was a lot. And I don’t think that is necessarily healthy for anybody,” says Flockhart, adding that she tended to pick subsequent shows, including a stint as Cat Grant in the CW’s “Supergirl,” according to each project’s ability to accommodate her desire to be with her family.

Flockhart timed her return to the stage with Liam’s exit for college. Both plans were upended by the pandemic, and in March of 2020 she found her recent empty nest again full and her show, “An Ideal Husband,” in Boston canceled. The family spent a good chunk of its quarantine in Wyoming — cooking, binging TV shows, going on long walks with the dogs.

“I think it’s had an effect on my psyche, and on all of us, you know, the conscious, collective psyche has been altered in some way, I suppose,” says Flockhart, recalling the familiar early-pandemic rituals of cleaning groceries, making people take their shoes off when they entered the house and designating herself to do the grocery shopping because she knew she would be the most cautious one to undertake the endeavor.

Now Liam is once again away at college and Flockhart is diving back into an art form that gives her more joy than any other, she says.

“I love theater. I love that it’s happening in the moment right in front of your eyes. I love going to the theater. I love being in a play. I love, obviously, that it’s live,” she says. “There’s no editor and it’s an actor’s medium. You’re on the stage, the director’s gone and it’s just very exciting to me.”

Also exciting: Albee’s script.

Flockhart picks her maroon-bound script up off the cluttered coffee table in front of her and begins to page through it, eyes shining.

“This is so musical; if you miss one word, you know it,” she says. “And it’s so interesting; it’s written like an aria. The musicality of this play is extraordinary.”

Flockhart is also impressed with the precision of Albee’s text—the ellipses, the exclamation points, the capital letters, the detailed stage directions.

“Nothing is random,” she says, adding that working through the script is like solving a puzzle of meaning.

The same could be said of the lines that shoot like barbed arrows between the play’s protagonists, the tragic husband-and-wife duo of George and Martha. George is an associate professor of history and Martha is the daughter of the college president. The play takes place at their home after a faculty party, where they host a young married couple, Honey and Nick, for a nightcap.

George and Martha proceed to taunt and prod each other in front of the unwitting young people. What follows is one of theater’s most unsettling battles of wit — a deeply uncomfortable, razor-sharp examination of the dynamics between married men and women, as well as an intimate excavation of what it takes to actually know another human being and what happens when shimmering illusions give way to the darkness of ugly truths.

The characters of George and Martha were immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in director Mike Nichols’ 1966 film, for which Taylor won her second Oscar for lead actress.

Flockhart recalls a fascination with the film and says that when she was working on “The Birdcage” with Nichols, she would every day pepper him with questions about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“I probably annoyed him. But I did it anyway. And we talked about it a lot,” she says, adding that Nichols told her she needed to play Honey. She told him she loved the character of Honey but that she wanted to play Martha. “And he said, ‘You will play Martha in 30 years,’ and I said, ‘OK, from your lips to God’s ears.’”

Flockhart says she continued talking about that particular desire for the past decades, and it has finally come to pass. She jokes that when theater lovers think of Martha, Flockhart is not necessarily the first actress to spring to mind for her character. But that doesn’t bother her. It only adds to her drive for her to explore and develop that complicated woman.

She slips with practiced precision into character to purr a line or two of Martha’s.

“Did you two men have a nice talk while we were gone?” she says, speaking the line like the challenge that it is, and adding with thinly veiled sticky sweetness, “Oh, aren’t these men the absolute end?”

The script was written in 1962, and Flockhart says the Geffen’s production, directed by Gordon Greenberg, occupies that specific era of the 20th century. The play still has much to offer a 21st century audience that has just lived through a staggering pandemic, but Flockhart won’t attempt to surmise what messages today’s viewers might uncover. She’d rather leave that process to them.

Albee, she says, is among her very favorite playwrights. When she listens to her words from her — spoken by her co-stars, Zachary Quinto (George), Graham Phillips (Nick) and Aimee Carrero (Honey) — she always hears something new and unexpected.

“I hear politics. I hear religion. It’s not just about a couple who scream at each other — a couple of drunks,” she says. “That’s not the play. It’s so much more.”

It’s also the writing. Always the writing. The words that pour from the page, through her mouth and into the ears of an audience hungry for an experience beyond their everyday lives. This is the magic of the stage, she says before quoting a line that gives her chills.

“We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then… we put them…in our…drinks.”

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 and 7 pm Saturdays and Sundays. In previews; opens April 28. Ends May 22.
Tickets: Start at $30
Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes (including two 10-minute intermissions)
COVID-Protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required. Masks are required at all times.

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