Judith Light's career has been stamped with a series of "defining" roles -- which is exactly what makes it so hard to define. She's had a hold on the daytime soap crowd ("One Life to Live"), filled packed theaters at night ("Wit," "Lombardi"), and who could forget Angela Bower ("Who's the Boss?"), the uptight working mom only Tony Danza could soften? Light, who began as a classically trained theater actress, wasn't always comfortable jumping from her roots to soaps, sitcoms ("Ugly Betty") and TV movies ("The Ryan White Story"). But in hindsight, it's made for a career where, at 61, she's still reinventing herself.
These days, Light has circled back to her roots in another career-defining role, as a rehabbed alcoholic in Jon Robin Baitz's family drama "Other Desert Cities." The play, directed by Joe Mantello ("Wicked," "Assassins"), rounds out a bang-up return to theater for Light, in a year that began with critical winner "Lombardi," for which she was nominated for a Tony award. "Other Desert Cities" earned similarly rave reviews when it opened off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, originally with Linda Lavin in the role Light now plays.
"The only problem with the gorgeously acted Lincoln Center Theater production of 'Other Desert Cities' ... is that you probably need to see it five times," Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote at the time. Reviews like this, and a steady stream of full houses, carried it to a home at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, where the praise became even more rapturous. "'Cities' emerges as stronger, more sincere and more credible in its Broadway reincarnation," Brantley wrote in his re-review, noting Light's success in reimagining the role by daring to be "less than lovable."
The cast of "Other Desert Cities" is made up of five well-shaded characters, each armed with a unique brand of wit. The plot is set in motion when daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) presents her family with a memoir she's about to publish, a tell-all that reopens old wounds. Light plays Silda, the recovering alcoholic aunt, who sits slightly on the periphery of this Palm Springs family, making snide remarks as their political and personal differences come to the fore.
Light -- who has an infectious warmth that makes you feel like you've known her for years -- sat down with The Huffington Post to discuss getting back into theater, what Tony Danza taught her and how she's become stronger by doing what she always swore she would never do.
Had you seen "Other Desert Cities" when it was at Lincoln Center?
No, it was so funny because I was at an event with Stacy Keach, and I was in the middle of doing "Lombardi." I said, "Oh my goodness, I really want to see your play, but I'm actually not going to be able to see it because you're on the same schedule as I am." So I said to my husband and my managers, "Look, there's this play that the word of mouth on it is just incredible." I sent them to see it, and they came back and said, "This is the best new play we have seen in we don't know how many years." And I never got to see it. But that turned out to be a really good thing. It was what I call divine choreography. The universe was kind of watching out for me, because I have a lot of respect for Linda Lavin, and stepping into that part, seeing what she would do with it, and given how much I respect her...
You wouldn't have to compare yourself to her.
Exactly, and I just didn't want to have to do that.
Do you have any sense of what your character's backstory is?
The thing that I did a lot of stuff for was the alcoholic stuff. I went up to [a rehab] facility and saw what they do there, and got a sense of what it means to be dealing with one's addiction over and over again. It was interesting because there are four new lines in this script that weren't in the Lincoln Center script. Robbie wrote this whole other scene, and there was this moment where Silda says, "I never stopped drinking. I just concealed it well." And we all decided to take that out because we felt there are so many big reveals that are coming after that particular moment that it was one more family secret we didn't need to know about in that moment. Because the play wants to move, it wants to go on.
You also played an alcoholic on "Ugly Betty." Were you able to relate the roles at all?
No, each character is very different for me. How they manifest their issues, their psychology, their neuroses -- alcohol happens to be the drug of choice for them, but it could be anything.
If you have a better relationship with the cast offstage, do you feel more comfortable together onstage?
When things are upset or fraught, I don't think it makes for better work, even if that's what has to happen onstage. We happened to have that kind of warmth on this particular show because we have to know that we are there for each other in a very powerful way, for this event to take place. It's so intimate, so there isn't a person there I know couldn't catch me if I needed it in some way, and I'd like to think that they can rely on me in the same way.
Did it upset the balance when Stockard Channing had to leave for surgery?
It's very different. Stockard's energy, as you have seen, is so incredibly powerful. She's so strong and talented and brilliant that when her energy is not there, it's different. So God bless Lauren Klein for coming in at the last minute. She stepped in very bravely, and it was a whole other thing.
There are some universal themes here that can make you think about your own upbringing. Were you able to relate the play to your own family life?
Growing up as a Jewish girl, yeah, definitely, there a lot of parallels. All of the stuff Polly [Channing] says to Brooke, she's watching her like a hawk all the time -- I can totally relate to that. My mother was an amazing, funny, fabulous woman, but I'm an only child, so she was kind of on me all the time. And the way in which people talk to each other -- we all have this. There are these little barbs, they're ways we talk to each other in families. We would never in a million years talk to other people like that.
You've had a very long career, and that's wonderful. Do you ever keep in touch with say Alyssa Milano and the people you've watched grow up?
I haven't been in touch with Alyssa for a while, but you know, I keep tabs on her through the media. But actually Tony Danza is coming to the show tonight. There are a lot people I keep in touch with because there's a kind of intimacy you get when you work with people for such a long period of time. I mean, Tony and I were together for eight years. He taught me so much about comedy, comedy timing. So much of what I do -- what's funny in "Lombardi" and what I do here -- I learned with Tony.
Your career has included a lot of TV and theater. Do you have a preference?
We are in a service job. We are. Those people will come tonight, and there will be a full house, and it is my responsibility to give them everything I can possibly give them. And I think that's in every venue. Every place you create a character, it is there to entertain, to enlighten, to awaken, to give a mirror on the human condition, something people might not see in any other format. And that's why I was so proud of being able to do the soap. Because I got to reach so many people in so many ways. People say, "Oh, don't talk about it." I say, why? It was incredible for me personally, incredibly valuable for other people.
I read there's a film version of "Other Desert Cities" in the works. Could you imagine yourself playing the role on film?
I would love to play this role on film. I think when you see people who've done the play and then go into the film, the richness and depth of the performance is extraordinary. And I would hope that would be the same if I were fortunate enough to get to do it in the film. I think somebody is going to take this film and open it up. You can just see the son Henry, and Silda up in her house alone drinking -- all of those things that are just pictures in your head that are spoken of. This is going to lend itself to a magnificent film.
So what's next for you?
I will probably go up for pilots and hopefully get something that will be in New York that I can finish during the day and I can go and do the show at night. What I've started doing in these past several years is allowing the people who I love and trust to deal with that, but I also know that I have been taken care of in a very powerful way by the universe, and given things I could never have orchestrated in a million years. I used to be a lot more controlling about what it had to be, and that was partly the story of me getting on the soap. I was about to leave the business because it wasn't working out the way I had planned for it. I chose a very different path than the one I thought that I should have or was due me, and it was very frustrating for me because I was very spoiled.
And it must be scary in the industry to feel like you might get pigeonholed.
I always felt I knew I was versatile, I had the ability to be versatile. I think it's only now that people are beginning to see that about me. Yes, I was very concerned. And people did put me in a box about the soap, and I had to work my way out of that, and then they were very generous to me and gave me "Who's the Boss?" and then I had to work my way again. But every one of those things was wonderful for me, things I swore I would never do. They allowed me a connection to a fanbase I respect and love and appreciate deeply. And it helped me hone my craft in very specific ways. When I finished "Who's the Boss?" I had to take a very drastic step I was terrified of. I came back to New York and did a play called "Wit," and I shaved my head and I was naked, and talk about having to get yourself out of a box. I hadn't been on stage in 22 years and I was terrified. And you know, people say, "Oh, that's the girl from 'Who's the Boss?'" So for me, the things I had to muster in myself in terms of courage and resilience and proving myself were really good for my self, my person.
Aside from acting, you've done a lot of AIDS work through the years. How did you get involved in that?
During the time of the AIDS pandemic, I had a lot of friends in the theater who were dying. The gay community is such a powerful demonstration to me of what it means to stand up for who you are. It was actually being inspired by that community that took me back into the theater. I had spoken at a lot at venues about how the community inspired me, and Herb [her manager] to me at one point said that I was just talking the talk, I wasn't walking the walk. I knew it, but I was terrified. And then you have someone as powerful as he is and someone who you trust implicitly -- it's smart of you to listen to them. That's when I said to him, the next thing that I get to audition for, I will. And that was "Wit." But I thought, "Oh, they're never going to give it to me." I thought I had an out (laughs).
"Other Desert Cities" is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York through Feb. 27. For tickets and more information, go here.