Elizabeth Wilson and I were comrades-in-arms, so to speak, along with Tom Aldredge, the director Jeff Bleckner, and the rest of the cast of Sticks and Bones as we ran Off Broadway, and then on Broadway in 1971 and ’72, with Joe Papp urging us on. It took courage for the actors to walk onto that stage each night in the untried absurdity, madness and assault of that play, especially at that time, with the war still on. One of them once said—and I think it was Liz—that they should be receiving combat pay, and we all knew what she meant, for the vibe from the audience sweeping back at them was rich and dark and always conflicted and sometimes perfectly hostile. On we went, however, and Liz, with her smarts, cunning, humor and raw force when needed, made Harriet a comic yet real and complex figure scorched into the minds of so many who saw her.
There’s a line in the play, simple enough on the page, that reads, “What do you want, teaching him sports and fighting? What, Ozzie, do you want?” It is spoken at a time when tensions are high in the family, when Harriet is beginning to feel that her damaged connection to her son may be irreparable. One afternoon in rehearsal—and in every rehearsal and performance thereafter—the line exploded out of Liz with a primal fury that stilled everyone present, and certainly Ozzie, at whom it was directed, with paralyzing fear. With his next line, Tom (who played Ozzie) evaded the open chasm before him, quietly asking for help finding some aspirin. What drawer might they be in? Liz/Harriet politely provided the answer, and the play glided on as if the outburst had not happened, swept under the rug as the world of the play desired, though of course it had happened, and we all had seen it. In the published versions, I tried to indicate what Liz had discovered with a parenthetical direction regarding her desperate emotion along with capital letters on: “WHAT OZZIE DO YOU WANT?”
In the spring of that year she was awarded a Tony, as was the play.
Over the next few years we remained close. I remember seeing the Uncle Vanya she did with Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott and Julie Christie numerous times, hovering backstage like an awed fan, which I was, amazed that I knew her and was allowed to be there, to talk with her and meet the other actors and Mike Nichols.
Coming upon her obituary the other day, unexpectedly, as I did, my heart raced, as it does with these losses, and regret at our lost contact over the years surged, as did my memory of the times we had shared. Tom Aldredge has passed, too, it has to be noted. And Joe Papp, and Mike Nichols—all linked in my sense of the past and time. Liz had been freshly in my mind, given the recent revival of Sticks and Bones. One afternoon during an early rehearsal, Holly Hunter, who would come to render those lines and that moment with her own mad, trembling passion, reported accidentally encountering a friend on the street who was on her way to visit Liz. Holly seemed to find a kind of blessing in the coincidence. I remember thinking, “I should be going to visit Liz.” But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
Death cuts these connections, faltering as they may be, that memory fights to retain.