A statuesque nun with steely gray eyes paces the stage, lecturing her unseen students on the wages of sin. "Sodom," she intones, "is where they committed acts of homosexuality and bestiality in the Old Testament. Modern-day Sodoms are New York City, San Francisco..." From the audience booms a male voice: "And Key West!" Without missing a beat, the sister continues: "Amsterdam, Los Angeles...anywhere the population is over 50,000."
As the caricature of a nun in Christopher Durang's wicked black comedy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, at Manhattan's Westside Arts Theatre, Nancy Marchand, 54, has been rudely interrupted, booed and hissed. A few offended Catholics, and non-Catholics too, have even walked out on her handmade charts explaining purgatory and limbo and such pronouncements as, "Yes, all our prayers are answered." But "sometimes the answer is 'No!' " Most of her audiences, however, think Marchand should be canonized for her performance in a play that includes some heavenly lines about hell and those who will go straight to it ("Christine Keeler, Roman Polanski, Linda Lovelace, Brooke Shields
, Mick Jagger...").
Only a few months before Marchand (a Methodist) stepped into the off-Broadway hit, she was the picture of a patrician power broker on TV's Lou Grant. As the newspaper publisher, Mrs. Pynchon, Marchand won four Emmy Awards and the lasting admiration of the show's star, Ed Asner. "She's an intensely, inordinately disciplined actress," he says. "She puts any of those towering, majestic English Dames to shame. I truly despised her at times for being so good."
Marchand, in turn, is a fan of Asner's and was furious when CBS abruptly canceled the show last May after five solid seasons. "I think it was pretty crummy," she complains. "There had been no warning." Although many industry insiders think Asner's controversial liberal politics rankled the network (a drop in ratings was the official reason), Marchand argues: "The show dealt with issues people identified with, like unsafe products, dumping toxic wastes and the Vietnam War. The Moral Majority types were giving the show flak. I think the network got sick of the whole thing."
Marchand herself was getting pretty sick of commuting between her Manhattan home and taping sessions in Studio City, Calif. And she was miserable apart from her husband of 30 years, actor Paul Sparer, and their offspring: David, 30, a lawyer, Katie, 26, an actress, and Rachel, 21, a college senior. The children still frequently visit the family's West Side apartment. "There are iceboxes to defrost and laundry to do," Marchand says. "There's a life here that's important to our wholeness as people."
Holding it all together was not easy, especially in the early years when Nancy was raising her family and acting full-time. "I used to sometimes pray I'd die for a few weeks because I was so tired," she remembers. "I'd come running home from rehearsals and have dogs to walk and lunches to make. Putting Halloween costumes together was my great relaxer."
Almost from the outset, there was a madcap ethos in Marchand's life. The daughter of a dentist and a piano teacher in Buffalo, N.Y., she studied drama at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech before falling in love practically at first sight with a man in a long, curly blond Restoration wig. The setting: the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass. The object of her passion: fellow actor Paul Sparer, handsome, Harvard-educated—and married. The pair wed in 1952 after Paul had divorced, and two weeks before the birth of their son. As Nancy recalls the nuptials, "I was wearing a man's shirt and a maternity skirt. We went to the Laundromat, put the clothes in, then went to the Somerville, Mass. city hall. Afterward we picked up the laundry. It was our day off and we needed clean clothes."
The spin cycle continued through their years as struggling young actors in New York, with summers spent at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. Over the years Marchand progressed to large parts. One of her favorites was that of the addled housewife in the 1980 Broadway hit Morning's at Seven. Maureen O'Sullivan, one of her co-stars, recalls Nancy as a "pussycat with a tough exterior." Marchand admits to having a crusty, opinionated side. "I do run off at the mouth," she says. "I can tell you the best way to make fruitcake or how to deal with Lebanon."
Fruitcakes and other domestic pursuits are especially appealing to Nancy right now. After her frenetic years, she longs for more time to sew, garden at her country house in Stratford, Conn. and just relax. She claims that she has no desire to do another TV series right now and that her current stage habit will be fairly short-lived ("Probably not more than a year"). But will television, Broadway and her own driving work ethic heed her prayers for peace and quiet? As Sister Mary Ignatius says, "Sometimes God's answer is 'No.' "