by Steve Lawson
Sometimes it was only a gesture, but it gripped you. In Chekhov’s The Seagull, a young girl offers the doctor a bouquet of flowers. Secretly in love with him, the housekeeper Paulina snarls: “Give me those flowers. Give me those flowers!” And she snatches the bouquet away, and furiously tears it to shreds. You weren’t quite sure whether to laugh or cry.. but that’s the effect Olympia Dukakis had.
This unique fusion of high drama with a sly sense of the absurd informed all of Olympia’s work. You saw it in her estate owner in The Cherry Orchard, in a downtrodden soul alternating with a vicious alter ego in The Good Woman of Setzuan, in the actress chained to an alcoholic husband in Enemies, in an indomitable Mother Courage. Delightful as she was onscreen, the observer who only knows Olympia from films or television is deprived. Her first love was the theater, and happily a great deal of that devotion was displayed in Williamstown.
Often her WTF appearances were family affairs. She acted many times with her beloved husband Louis Zorich, a soulmate if ever there was one. Their first Williamstown production together was Long Day’s Journey into Night, during which Olympia woke up on the day of the opening unable to remember a single line of her enormous role. Louis declined to offer easy sympathy, saying simply: “There is no understudy” – the shock of which got her back on track. They were a great team. And their appetites were as outsized as their talents: when I was literary manager I kept a bowl of munchies on my desk, and one summer Olympia dashed in to say hello, spied the bowl, and shouted down the hall: “Louis! PISTACHIOS!” By the time they left the office, the bowl was empty.
I once asked her why she kept coming back to Williamstown. She answered that she knew she’d be challenged. One example: after tackling a number of gritty characters, she was amazed when Nikos asked her to take on Tatiana, the glamorous actress in Enemies. He explained that he wanted her to play a woman who was physically beautiful, who knew of her intrinsic sophistication and how to use it. A major departure for Olympia.
We’d talk on the phone a couple times a year, and our calls would always last a while because every anecdote inspired several more. One minute Olympia would be roaring at some funny recollection; the next she’d be holding back tears. It was a long-distance, real-life version of her theatrical persona. I treasure the memory of those phone calls, which never failed to bring Olympia into the room. And when I think back on her now, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.