Hartford Courant - Hartford, Conn.
Date:  Apr 5, 2006

The passerby takes one look and stops dead in her tracks on Pratt Street.

Must be she's not accustomed to seeing a star of stage and screen sitting in front of Jo Jo's Coffee Roaster in downtown Hartford.

"Are you who I think you are?" she asks the actress enjoying some rare sunshine east of Hollywood. "You're Joan. ..."

"I'm not Joan Rivers," Joan Van Ark shoots back, laughing. "But I don't mind being Joan Rivers, as I long as I get a curtain call."

"You're Joan Van Ark," the fan tells her. "I just called my office and told them I saw you"

"Did you say: `I just saw an apparition having a latte on Pratt Street?'" Van Ark says as she signs the autograph requested.

Van Ark has barely emptied her multiple packets of Splenda into her latte, but she already has revealed she has a delicious, sassy, self-deprecating sense of humor. It's a gift she had in hiding for the 14 years (1979-93) she played the gorgeous, yet tortured girl- next-door Valene Ewing, one year on "Dallas" and then the rest on its spinoff soap opera "Knots Landing."

Van Ark is in town playing a very different role as the imperious Helena in Tennessee Williams' four-woman comedy "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur," which starts previews Thursday.

"Helena is so far from my comfort zone," Van Ark says. "I so desperately want everyone to love me. My husband [of 40 years] says it may be the most difficult part I've played."

"I love the poetry of Tennessee Williams. He tucks secrets into his script and description into his punctuation. He's pure gold to an actress," Van Ark says. "He says Helena enters with the eyes of a predatory bird. When I can't sleep, I think of being birdlike."

Although Van Ark had a long run with "Knots Landing," she seems happiest on stage.

"Baby, 14 years of life meant I missed a lot of stage characters," she says. "We filmed almost year-round.

"Stage is the true test. It's the church of my work."

Van Ark has had her stage triumphs -- she was nominated for Broadway's 1971 Tony award as best supporting or featured actress (dramatic) for "The School for Wives."

And she particularly enjoyed her experience at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, founded by legendary director Nikos Psacharopoulous. In "Night of the Iguana" in 1987, she played there opposite West Hartford native James Naughton.

At Williamstown that year, she caught the eye of Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson, who described that role as "hot, sexy and feisty." He had wanted to cast Van Ark in "Orpheus Descending" at Houston's Alley Theatre, which he was directing, but it didn't work into her schedule.

So now she's in Hartford, with Wilson directing her, and she's here for one reason only: "To deliver Helena to Michael, and then get the hell out of Dodge."

Van Ark is so focused on being Helena that she doesn't allow for much else in her life at the moment, although she did make a post- latte dash to pick up a birthday present at Stackpole Moore & Tryon. The "Knots Landing" DVD came out that week, and there was talk of her going on "The View" to promote it, but she has no interest to have her concentration diverted from the play.

"I'm trashed," she says with a toss of that famous bone-straight blond hair. "I'm a dog. I can't go sit with those four divas."

Van Ark did take part in the "Knots Landing Reunion Special."

"The most beautiful thing I learned," she says, "is that we are connected for life."

She credits Michele Lee with teaching her direction and Donna Mills with teaching her how to use lighting to look right.

Alec Baldwin?

"I love him; he was my brother," she says. "Alec is so amazing and facile. I think his best work is in front of him. I see him as `Big Daddy' that will erase any image of Burl Ives."

And then there's her beloved Julie Harris, who not only played Van Ark's mother on the show but is the reason Van Ark went into acting and studied at Yale School of Drama.

Van Ark actually tears up when she starts to talk of Harris, apologizes, then borrows a line from the coffee lady on "Saturday Night Live," saying, "I get verklempt."

Van Ark was 15 when she met Harris and was interviewing her for the Rocky Mountain News. Van Ark grew up in Colorado; her father, mother and sister were all writers. Harris noted Van Ark's dramatic talent and suggested she apply to Yale School of Drama, where Harris was the youngest student to attend there on a scholarship. Van Ark followed her advice. Harris talked to the dean, and at 18, after she and her parents drove across the country to New Haven, Van Ark followed in Harris' footsteps.

"Julie is the flame of a candle," Van Ark says. "She stays steady and strong."

Years later, when Van Ark was on "Knots Landing," she was told the role of her mother had been cast.

"Is it Phyllis Diller? One of the Gabors?" she asked the casting director. "When I heard it was Julie, I let out this scream!"

"I have this fantasy of Julie and Kirk Douglas doing a love story," Van Ark says. "I'll get all emotional."

Van Ark, who's 62, cites Harris, 80, and Frances Sternhagen and Doris Roberts, both 76, as actresses "who've evolved and continued to astonish."

Van Ark has dreams for what she calls "my Chapter 2."

"I want to be the hottest and vainest grandmother on the planet, an Auntie Mame or Desiree in `A Little Night Music,'" she says.

Meanwhile, she's in Hartford totally focused on this play. Seasoned, distinguished actresses Carlin Glynn, Annalee Jefferies and Jayne Taini join her in the cast, and Van Ark has a prediction.

"There will be something magic among the four women, something like what happens in `Steel Magnolias,'" she says. "And if God is good, He will put his arms around it."