If you wanted two reasons to avoid majoring in theater in college, you could not do much better than to look at the two female success stories in The Grand Manner. Kate Burton studied politics and humanities at Brown and wanted to be a diplomat; Brenda Wehle, who plays Gert Macy, the assistant to Burton's Katharine Cornell, majored in French literature. She had been an Army brat and had learned French as a child while her father, a general, was posted in Paris. The college major therefore seemed obvious.
"I went to Barat College of the Sacred Heart, in Lake Forest, Illinois," Wehle said the other day between shows. "The college is now closed but it had a reputable Theater Arts department. I didn't know much about it at first." One day, however, she was walking past the school gym and noticed people inside making things. "It was for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest.I was immediately intrigued and ended up making some pretty good leaves for that show."
Acting on Barat's stage soon followed. Eventually, Wehle ended up in the Washington, D.C. area. "My older brother" - she's from a family of six children - "took me to an audition at Catholic University. I got into the graduate theater program. The school at that point had a touring company. I went out on the road with them for nine months - twice."
The peripatetic nature of the actors' life was no hardship for Wehle. "I'd moved around so much as a child that travel was second-nature to me." She added: "Being a newcomer - an outsider - all the time makes you try a little harder to get into another person's shoes, so you can adapt and adjust. That's part of what we do as actors."
Wehle has had a richly varied career, which has included 10 years at the Guthrie in Minneapolis (when that theater had a proper, salaried acting company), as well as work with her Grand Manner costars Kate Burton and Boyd Gaines and her Grand Manner director, Mark Lamos.
"Mark and I did a marathon called The Greeks at Hartford Stage, in 1984," Wehle said. "It was extraordinary, one of the highlights of my life. Kate and I know each other from summers at Williamstown. [That's the Williamstown Theater Festival, for those unversed in thesp shorthand.] And Boyd and I worked together a few years back at the Roundabout, in Pygmalion."
As for The Grand Manner, Wehle said she's enjoyed finding out more about Katharine Cornell and Gert Macy. Through a personal connection, Wehle was able to listen to a tape recording Macy once made about Cornell. Among other things, Macy discussed The Seven Most Important Relationships In Cornell's Life. "Only one of them was with a man," Wehle said. "That was her husband, Guthrie McClintic, of course."
Sifting through such material has given Wehle a sharper sense of the vanished world that playwright A.R. Gurney evokes in The Grand Mannerand in other works. "Gurney is so eloquent at dramatizing the history of gentility," the actress said. "There are at least two important shifts in that process: when individuals, when a family, become genteel; and when they lose their gentility. That's a loss that can take a long time to get over."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.