FEATURE  Mar 2, 2005

Loose Lips

Joan Van Ark plays a meddling mother-in-law in La Jolla. Plus: Lynn Ahrens on Dessa Rose.

By: Brian Scott Lipton


Joan Van Ark took "getting into character" to a new level while preparing for her role as meddling mother-in-law Harriet in the La Jolla    Playhouse's production of Private Fittings, playwright Mark O'Donnell's modern update of the classic Feydeau farce Tailleur pour Dames. "When I first read the script, the part read like Lainie Kazan," says Van Ark. "Lainie is so brilliant, but I didn't want that kind of take on Harriet; my idea was more Ivana Trump, some brassy blonde with great legs. So for my reading with [director] Des McAnuff, I had my hairdresser do a French twist and I wore this purple suit with a miniskirt."  Van Ark, best known for her 15-year TV stint as Valene Ewing on Dallas and Knots Landing, didn't really need the work; she had spent the past year on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless and, for most of summer 2004, she was at the Kennedy Center in Five by Tenn. But the opportunity to play Harriet -- and to work with McAnuff -- proved too tempting to pass up. And her research continued after she got the role. "I do a photo collage for inspiration for every character I play," Van Ark says. "For this one, I have a big picture of Joan Rivers with Melissa, because I really admire their mother-daughter relationship. I am just as fierce in protecting my daughter [actress Vanesssa Marshall] as Joan is."  The play marks a return to French comedy for Van Ark, who earned a Tony nomination for her work in a 1971 production of Molière's The School For Wives. But, she remarks, the style of the two playwrights is not the same: "If Molière is like a 33rpm record, to use an old term, then Feydeau is a 78. We've been off book and going 90 miles per hour from the first rehearsal. And since my character is called Hurricane Harriet, it's my responsibility to both the play and the other actors to go 110mph. I make sure that every time I walk, it's like a runway stride. Now,  I'm a marathoner -- I usually run 10 miles a day when I'm not working -- but I am far more exhausted doing this show than I've ever been. And I have cuts and bruises from head to toe because of all those slamming doors!"  Having made her Broadway debut almost 40 years ago as Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park, does Van Ark long to return to the Great White Way? "I would love to come back," she says. "And in my heart, I know that there are a couple of roles out there that I can really give everything to. I would love it to be a part like Sunny Jacobs, whom I played in The Exonerated. She had that Joan of Arc quality -- and, you know, that's my name in Dutch."