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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch and more older actresses get better with age

From left, Kerry Butler, Eric McCormack and Angela

From left, Kerry Butler, Eric McCormack and Angela Lansbury in a scene from Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" directed by Michael Wilson at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

It is hardly a controversy for the ages. It is, however, part of a satisfying reality in the theater.

Ever since Cicely Tyson radiantly opened last month in what became her Tony-nominated performance in "The Trip to Bountiful," theater people and fact checkers have been arguing about her age. Is she 79, as cited in Wikipedia, or 88, as widely reported elsewhere?

The play's press agent tells me, "Honestly, I do not know the answer. Cicely has not confirmed her age."

And, honestly, it feels unseemly even to ask.

Either way, she is wonderful in her return to Broadway after 30 years, portraying an elderly woman yearning to go home in the play Horton Foote wrote in 1953. Yes, the age discrepancies are an entertaining sideshow. But it comes perilously close to a stunted, old-fashioned notion that people of a certain age should be unable to remain upright for long without a nap -- much less be onstage for eight performances a week.

In fact, older actresses are an extraordinarily ordinary fact of life in the theater. Unlike movies and television, where women cannot have wrinkles unless they are English or Betty White, the theater does not just appreciate the contributions of women with a past. It actually employs them.

Look around. Not every star turn on Broadway involves teeny children. Angela Lansbury, 87, has starred on Broadway four times and won her fifth Tony Award since she outlived Hollywood's youth demographic as the iconic lady detective in "Murder, She Wrote."

When she ended her run last season as the cunning gorgon politico in "Gore Vidal's the Best Man," she went to Australia where she's now co-starring with James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy." And though people understandably cherish every Lansbury appearance as if it's the last time we'll see her, she already has hinted she will star in a revival of Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden" this fall.

Elaine Stritch, 88, retired to Michigan after her final cabaret show at Café Carlyle last month. But at 85, she succeeded Lansbury as the aging high-class courtesan in "A Little Night Music" and, in 2002, owned Broadway in her riveting autobiographical solo, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty." Barbara Cook, now 85, starred in the Broadway revue "Sondheim on Sondheim" in 2010 and remains an unstoppable treasure in cabaret.

Earlier this year, Vanessa Redgrave, a relative baby of 76, chose to follow spellbinding Broadway turns in "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Driving Miss Daisy" with an extended run in a 180-seat downtown theater this winter in the world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg's "The Revisionist." The play turned out to be a disappointment, but the artist with the luminous, live-for-the-moment spontaneity was as daring as ever.

Not every veteran is a brand name beyond theater lovers, though more than a few deserve to be. On May 20 at the 58th Annual Village Voice Obie Awards, no one less than Meryl Streep will present lifetime achievement awards to Frances Sternhagen, 83, and Lois Smith, 82.

"Every time you see one of their names on a program, you're glad of it," says Michael Feingold, chair of the Obies, playwright and drama critic of the Voice for 42 years. "If you have been watching theater long enough, you have seen these extraordinary women, time and again, in a variety of different guises. They are living role models. Each one brings a planet with her... each one is a world."

He is not just talking about history. Both were remarkable in recent world premieres. At the Signature Theatre last summer, Smith inhabited the scary old mother with the unexplained paralysis and the poetic motormouth in Sam Shepard's "Heartless." Sternhagen was wry and shrewd as the controlling, deceptively fragile widowed mother (of a restless woman played by Edie Falco) in Liz Flahive's "The Madrid," which closed last Sunday at Manhattan Theatre Club.

The meaning of a lifetime achievement award should not be lost here. It means one actually can have a lifetime in the theater -- if, as Feingold jokes about the unanimous jury decision, "you are Frances Sternhagen or Lois Smith." Although Smith may be remembered as James Dean's co-star in "East of Eden" and Sternhagen is beloved as Kyra Sedgwick's mother in "The Closer," the heart of their work since the '50s has been in the theater.

In Hollywood, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler are reduced to playing feisty grandmothers in family comedies. Unless you are Maggie Smith or Judi Dench, however, there are few roles in Hollywood for women in their late 70s or 80s. In the theater, women can be artists, not nostalgia items -- living, breathing participants in the daily business of theater. We can literally watch artists grow up onstage.

Lansbury, in an interview last year with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo, confirmed that theater offers more varied and interesting roles. "Oh, unquestionably," she said. "Unquestionably. You must understand, I'm 86. I'm still working full blast in the theater. You can't say I would ever be given that opportunity in movies, would I? What parts? There aren't any that I would want to play. The theater is a wonderful, wonderful platform for actors of all ages. So there's no limit to how long I can continue acting if I work in the theater."

Tyson, too busy now with "The Trip to Bountiful" to stop for an interview, told USA Today before her opening that she already has an offer to do another show next season. I love this story.

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