By D. Keith Mano
March 09, 1987 12:00 PM

Colleen Dewhurst is a madwoman onstage. She storms and bickers, excoriates then woos. In laughter her spectacular face, with that great inverted mouth, looks like the mask of tragedy itself with a big Irish grin on it. Now she talks at some phantom doctor. Now at Esteban, a decrepit cloth ape. All with the celebrated Dewhurst voice, so husky-sensual-raucous that her audience yearns to clear its throat in empathy.

Dewhurst, 59, is off Broadway now at the Public Theater, playing Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta. My Gene, a two-hour, one-woman show, was written by Dewhurst’s old friend, O’Neill biographer Barbara Gelb. The show is so demanding it has often left Dewhurst dead beat and half-stupefied, as well as lonely for onstage companionship. “I say, ‘Colleen darling, this is a vacuum. You’re going to turn around now and fill it. If you can remember where you are.’ ”

Where Dewhurst is, when at home, is a commodious 240-year-old farmhouse on 32 acres in Westchester County. Loneliness doesn’t hang out there. Grown children and a grandchild traipse through, often with grown laundry in tow. “People come for the weekend—then they stay two or three years,” says their hostess. Dewhurst is, by her own paradoxical assessment, a shy, gregarious person. She has been in this hiving, cheerful home, from which she now commutes to madness onstage, since her sons, Alexander, 26, and Campbell, 25, were children. “They’d say, ‘Do you know where your children are today?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, and I know where everyone else’s children are too. Here.’ ”

And, it would seem, everyone else’s cat. “Ken is the animal person,” Dewhurst will say, shifting blame for their menagerie onto Ken Marsolais, 51, her main man since 1974. Ten cats, two dogs and a parrot share the comfortable, Chekhov-set ambience. And that, you might say, is just her inside staff. Outside there are two mules, a goat, a ram, sheep, geese, chickens and Duke, the peacock. “My last idea was a llama. I read somewhere,” she says wistfully, “that England will buy all the llama wool you can produce.”

Which is a neat enough bridge to her latest TV project—Bigfoot, the Disney Sunday-night Movie that was filmed in Bear Mountain and will air March 8 on ABC. Dewhurst has been cast as an anthropologist who can talk to Sasquatch-like creatures. Typecasting, that. You figure, if they had a decent sense of humor and could play bridge, Bigfeet would be welcome along with Duke and the cat squad.

Dewhurst’s is the house that acting built. Or remodeled, anyhow. Yet theater wasn’t her first passion. An only child, born in Montreal, young Colleen wanted to be the next Amelia Earhart, minus the vanishing act. Mother split from Father (a food broker and “a very nice man,” says his daughter) when Colleen was 13. Mrs. Dewhurst and daughter left for Wisconsin so that the divorce wouldn’t embarrass anyone. “My mother thought my ambition to be an aviatrix was,” pause, “very interesting,” says Colleen. But Mrs. Dewhurst also felt that Colleen should have at least some college experience before lifting her undercarriage.

At Downer College in Milwaukee, Colleen wrote a freshman skit. “About the months of the year. It was awful. I can’t remember which actress wasn’t good, June or August. But another gal said to me, ‘You do it.’ ” Colleen did. From that trivial impulse would come, eventually, two Tonys, two Obies and one Emmy. But Mrs. Dewhurst was skeptical, and she had a dislike of mediocrity in the arts. Colleen would have to perform one scene in her presence if she expected backing from home. In effect, mother held an audition for daughter. That was a problem, since Colleen was so bashful she wouldn’t even rehearse with her fellow actors. But Mrs. Dewhurst’s review was favorable. She would send Colleen to New York after her sophomore year.

Just in time, because Colleen also managed to flunk out after her sophomore year. Unfortunately the college president wrote Mrs. Dewhurst a note. It said, more or less, that since this young impertinence thinks life is to be laughed through, maybe she should work for a while before going to New York. Mrs. Dewhurst concurred. It was then mid-World War II, and Colleen, both Canadian and unskilled, couldn’t even get defense-plant work. At one point she ended up in Gary, Ind. running an elevator. Mrs. Dewhurst came to visit. “My mother rode up. My mother rode down. Then she started to laugh. I said, ‘What’re you laughing at?’ She said, ‘You haven’t managed to hit one floor right yet.’ ”

That wasn’t the last transient occupation Colleen would have before her long decade of theater frustration was over. Waitress, receptionist, telephone operator; always she avoided permanent employment. “My middle name was No Responsibility,” she says. Yet when she came to New York in 1946, she never once cut class at the American Academy or with Harold Clurman, who had accepted her as a student despite her lack of experience. She was still shy. “I could never make the rounds. I was too embarrassed. I’d come in and say, ‘There’s nothing for me in this, is there?’ Then I’d drink tons of tea at the Astor drugstore and go home and tell my then husband [James Vickery, also an actor, whom she wed in 1947] that I’d looked for work.”

What you have in Dewhurst are several sorts of complex and explosive contradictions. Timid, yet pushy (she “pleaded” with Clurman to accept her). Proud, but self-effacing. Afraid, yet courageous when everyone in New York insisted she was “too big, too low-voiced, not an ingenue.” She is capable of anger, but not careless with passion. George C. Scott once said of her, “Colleen gets these fixations. Then she won’t look at a person for fear her look will kill them.” Above all, she is someone who cherishes humor. “I never worry about Colleen being seduced,” her mother once said. “I worry about some man laughing her into bed.” Dewhurst, who is fond of oceans, invokes a buoyant image for her life. “I think I just get on whatever wave might be coming by.”

In 1956 surf was up. Dewhurst rode a sweet wave with Joe Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. Papp’s theater had enjoyed decent popular success, but influential people—critics and agents—weren’t showing up. Once Papp had asked the large, throaty actress to play Juliet. “You haven’t seen me?” she said. “Well, I couldn’t do Juliet when I was 13.” This time he wanted her for Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. “We did it with these costumes that were sewn right on us,” she remembers. “One night it began raining right after the wooing scene.” Two theater addicts, who had just wandered in, came backstage—Barbara Gelb and her husband, Arthur, now managing editor of the New York Times.

Next day Gelb reviewed Taming—as much as he had seen before the rain-out. The legendary Brooks Atkinson himself was sent down to catch the show the following evening. “The audience changed overnight,” says Dewhurst. “The suits, the ties, the agents. In a way it was a shame.” Both Papp and his Kate were hot, and Dewhurst won her first Obie for Taming.

Thirty-one years later Dewhurst is again working for Papp, in My Gene. In the intervening three decades she has grown into her body and voice, so to speak, and become our preeminent female O’Neill interpreter. She won her second Obie for Desire Under the Elms in 1963 and a third doing A Moon for the Misbegotten in 1974. Meanwhile she had done Children of Darkness in 1958. It was a remarkable production, directed by José Quintero and starring Dewhurst, J.D. Cannon and someone named George C. Scott. As you know—for this was certainly the most conspicuous theater match since Cronyn and Tandy—Scott and Dewhurst fell in love. They divorced their respective spouses. They married. Had two children. Divorced. Came back for a curtain call. Divorced again. And are now good friends. “I have great love and affection for George. And admiration. He’s brilliant. I always said we got on much better during the divorces,” says Dewhurst. “I’m very subjective, he’s very objective. We make a better brother and sister.”

Their children, Alexander and Campbell, are following what must be their chromosomal bent. Campbell, a bright young actor, is at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. Alexander, with one child of his own and another coming, would like to write and direct. Neither, apparently, felt orphaned by their parents’ commitment to theater, perhaps because their mother long ago made a vow. “I swore I would never be away from the boys for more than three weeks or, better yet, 10 days,” she says. Providentially she had a splendid and imperious housekeeper, Christine Davis. For 22 years, before her death two years ago, “Christine went through everything with me,” says Dewhurst. “Through the divorce. From having money to having no money. There were months when I couldn’t pay her. She gave me my career.”

Colleen talks about the wave again. “Forget whether it’s the one that’s going to break your shoulder, or the one that’s going to carry you all the way to the beach. Maybe I’m lucky that I just move instinctively. Then, after having done something, my intellect comes forward and says, ‘Wait a minute. What have we done here, Colleen? Let’s go back.’ But there is no going back. God knows I’ve made mistakes, some of them close to tragedies, but then I suppose I’m greedy. I wanted it all.”

And she gives much back. Since 1985 Dewhurst has been president of the performers’ union Actors’ Equity. She is also on the executive boards of the Actors Fund of America and Save the Theatres, a movement to keep existing Broadway houses from being destroyed. Obviously the New York theater needs help, and Dewhurst is determined to do what she can. “Broadway is in crisis now,” she says. “Straight Broadway plays are unattended, too expensive and seldom well written. You find people talking through a show because they think they’re in front of a TV set and you can’t hear them. But I believe New York theater will definitely rise again. A lot of people you wouldn’t find in bed together, such as actors, producers and technical unions, are beginning to realize that our lives depend on each other. I have a tremendous affection for everyone in the business.”

Most particularly for Ken Marsolais, an independent producer who mounted such shows as Ned and Jack (which Dewhurst directed both off and on Broadway) and The Shadow Box, a Pulitzer prize-winning hit. He and Dewhurst met when he was brought in as assistant stage manager on A Moon for the Misbegotten. After three or four months they began dating. “I remember the first date,” Ken says. “I hollered up the stairs to her, ‘Do you want to go out for a drink?’ Colleen was waiting for a phone call. It didn’t come, so we went out.” He is still grateful to whoever it was who didn’t get back to her. “We have a great deal of love for each other and a great deal of support,” he says. “But we’ve made it a priority not to talk about our relationship in public.” In any case, six months later they decided to move in together.

But not to marry. “My boys were still in high school when Ken and I met,” Dewhurst explains. “I thought for them to see ACTRESS MARRIES FOR THE FOURTH TIME…. Well, there are situations where we will refer to each other as my husband, my wife, depending on the group. One day Campbell came up out of the pool—there were guests sitting around—and he said, ‘Do you realize that Ken is your common-law husband, and you’re his common-law wife?’ And I went ‘Aaargh.’ ” Comic double take, hands on throat. “But Ken has been very good to me. He is kinder than any man I know.”

The theater has been good to her too, but Dewhurst is not yet satisfied, nor is she through with O’Neill. She would still like to do Long Day’s Journey Into Night and, because she has never been considered a comic actress, she would also like to do “the funniest play I can find.” Her TV career is flourishing, and last year Dewhurst won her first Emmy, for Between Two Women with Farrah Fawcett on ABC. But the good role in a major film has been elusive. “So far I’m the famous cameo that rolls in and shoots for three days,” she observes. “I guess I’ll have to produce the film myself. But I’m not good at that. All I care about is the acting.”

And the passion. There is a wall of photographs near her kitchen: 100 at least, maybe more. They are often taken down and replaced, like stills in a theater lobby. NOW PLAYING: Ken and Colleen on their visit to Israel last year. Christine Davis. The Dewhurst parents. George C. Scott pitching softball. James Vickery. The children, often. Dewhurst at 8, 28, 48. The wall is half documentary, half shrine. You sense that this woman rejects no part of her past, good or bad. She is too healthy in spirit for that. “These are just stages of my life. I always want to know where the passion is. Whom and what I love. And have loved.”