Marilu Henner — Learning Health, Unlearning Lines
Marsha Mason and Marilu Henner
Marilu Henner returns to New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse from July 17 to August 10 as Masha in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Durang is her co-star as Vanya. I had such a good time speaking to Marilu by telephone and at the Playhouse last year, I am reblogging my interview from when she appeared in Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a performance which earned her a place on my Philadelphia-area and World Theater award lists.
Marilu Henner will tell you red meat and dairy are not your friends.
When both of her parents died in their fifties, the actress became preoccupied with health and nutrition, a subject that dominates a weekday radio program or the Genesis Communications Network and that streams on marilushow.com.
Henner pursued her study by devouring hundreds of books, her quest being to avoid her parents’ fate by learning about the human body, its structure and chemistry, and figuring out how best take care of it via diet and exercise.
What she discovered changed her entire life.
“I didn’t seek to become a know-it-all,” Henner says by telephone from her New York apartment where she has just returned following a day of rehearsal for Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in which she appears opposite Marsha Mason, David Garrison, and Lynn Cohen at New Hope, Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse through September 1.
“I became a remember-it-all,” she adds, referring to her phenomenal memory that allows Henner to recall minute details of any day of her life. For instance, when I tell her the first time I saw her was in Grease on January 8, 1973, she says, “That’s right, it was a Monday, and we played at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia. Ah, you came to opening night. What you don’t know is that’s also the first time I tasted Jack Daniels.”
Remembering what she learned about nutrition is more important to Henner than the party trick of reliving a bygone opening night of Grease. She says she added to her knowledge by talking to dozens of people from doctors and chemists to nutritionists.
“There’s so much information, and so much of it conflicts, I needed to find out what is true. I continue that quest on my radio show. ”
Meanwhile, Henner took her own life in her hands.
“My mother’s death was particularly difficult,” she says. “She was a dancer her whole life. She taught dance. I learned and taught at her school. She seemed the picture of health. Then, one day in December, she was diagnosed with the flu. By April, she had a leg amputated. By May, she was dead. Until that time, I never thought much about my health. My parents’ early deaths made me take a good look. I weighed 174 pounds, way too much. I never thought about what I ate or how to keep my body in shape.
“In addition to the reading and studying and cross-cutting of information to determine the truth, I took myself in hand. I lost 54 pounds. I exercise, making sure to break a sweat for at least 10 minutes a day. I realized meat and dairy are not your friends. Neither are sugar or alcohol. It’s not that I’m a Puritan. I indulge myself on occasion. These days, I tend to pay for it in ways that remind me that my body doesn’t want or need what I’ve put into it, usually with inflammation or some irritation or irregularity in my digestive track. Since I changed my habits, my body reacts dramatically to chemicals or sugar or other substances that tell it something is wrong here.”
On her radio show, heard from 8 to 11 a.m. weekdays, Henner discusses “life through the prism of health.” She and her guests discuss their opinions on the latest diet or fad. They are, Henner says, always seeking for the reality of the situation.
“Most people prefer to live in a state of illusion about their habits, which means they would rather live in a state of disease, sometimes relieved by prescription medication, than face the truth. My mission is to present the truth.”
Mental health is also important to Henner. For years, she has routinely had her head examined.
One reason is her memory. Henner says doctors cannot prove scientifically why she has the total recall she does.
Another is to assist the Alzheimer’s Association in its research about the brain.
“Nine areas of my brain are proven to be ten times larger than the same areas in the average human being,” Henner says. “Researchers try to pinpoint what means.
“Over the years, I have had samples taken of my blood vessels, saliva, and hair to see if they reveal anything.
“Also, I have a big cranium. My hat size is a men’s extra large.”
Henner also believes in therapy to “help me see who I am and how I relate.”
She says she and her six brothers and sisters make family calls by telephone to a therapist in Princeton. “I’ve called to the family sessions from Spain and other locations. It’s important, and it’s a good way to visit with my siblings.”
Henner played her character, Lee, in the original Broadway production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, so she is treading familiar territory as she prepares for her Bucks County Playhouse run. Given her amazing memory, I guess she won’t have any trouble with her lines.
“No,” she says. “Of course I remember my lines, but I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks trying to unlearn them.
“That’s a very different process. I’m not as facile at it. It’s important because this is a different production. I may have been in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, but I wasn’t directed by Boyd Gaines or acting opposite Marsha Mason on David Garrison. The blocking is different. Marsha’s rhythm is different. I have to respond to this production, so I want to come to my lines in a fresh way. That requires unlearning, taking a step back and seeing how Lee operates among this group of people.
“Lee is a magnificent character. I think of her as being the Cat in the Hat. She’s very feline, and you never know what she’s going to say to do. I get to be the firecracker in the cast, and I love Lee’s energy. I suits me perfectly.
“And I get to kiss Marsha Mason!”
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife runs from August 15 to September 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 4 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. There is a 6 p.m. show on Sunday, August 18 and a 2:30 p.m. show on Thursday, August 29. Tickets range from $57.50 to $29 and be ordered by calling 215-862-2121 or going online to bcptheatre.org.
In addition to Marilu Henner, known for her role as Elaine Nardo in “Taxi,” the Bucks County production features four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, seen these days on television as Frankie’s mother in “The Middle;” David Garrison, a marvelous actor known mostly for his days on “Married with Children;” and someone I refer to laudably as a professional theater actor, by which I mean a performer who might not be known but is always superb, Lynn Cohen. The director, Boyd Gaines, has earned four Tony Awards in three different categories, for acting. He is making his directorial debut with this production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Charles Busch is a comic genius. Realizing as a young actor, he was too slight and too androgynous to get the male leads he wanted, Busch wrote his own shows, usually casting himself as a femme fatale. Several of these shows — Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, The Lady in Question, You Should Be So Lucky — are off-Broadway classics. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is Busch’s first foray into standard Broadway comedy and his look at a woman in such despair over her life she has a breakdown in a Disney Store, is a gem.