Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis is set to soar at the White Heron Theatre.
Even at the age of eighty-four, with an Academy Award on her mantel, actress Olympia Dukakis continues to redefine herself on the stage. “Acting is a way of knowing myself,” she says, “and discovering and finding new things.” Indeed, come this summer, Olympia will discover Nantucket for the first time by way of a one-woman show she will perform at the newly opened White Heron Theatre. This rare performance will be the first to grace the new stage on 5 North Water Street and will mark a dramatic new era for theater arts on Nantucket.
“Olympia embodies who we are and what we do,” says Lynne Bolton, the White Heron’s co-artistic director. “She’s an actor’s actor.” Dukakis can fully appreciate the rigors that Bolton and her partner Michael Kopko have faced in starting and running a theater company on their own.
For over twenty years, she and her husband Louis were responsible for a similar company in Montclair, New Jersey, where Dukakis acted, directed, fundraised and promoted the shows. “I felt I was a part of the theater,” she says. “And you know what theater does? It actually helps create the quality of life in a community.”
Olympia Dukakis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and had the arts running in her blood. “When I was young I saw my father on stage [performing] Oedipus Rex and classical Greek in Lowell,” she recalls. “My mother loved to dance and sing. She was in shows all during the Second World War, raising money for the US and the Greek War Leagues.” The acting bug bit the Dukakis family tree; her brother Apollo and cousin, former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, were drawn to the stage. “Michael went to Swarthmore. I’m sure he did some acting there… some Shakespeare or something.”
As for Olympia herself, she didn’t step onto the stage until her first year of college when she performed at a summer theater. After attending graduate school at Boston University, she and a group of friends started the Actor’s Company, which later became the Charles Playhouse. The Playhouse helped launch the careers of Al Pacino, Jill Clayburgh, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, and John Cazale. Olympia went on to appear in over seventy films — such as Steel Magnolias and Mr. Holland’s Opus — but it was ultimately her supporting role playing Cher’s mother in Moonstruck in 1987 that earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar. She was fifty-six years old.
Despite her success on both the big and small screen, the stage has always been Olympia’s true calling. The show she will perform this July, Rose, is the culmination of all her work. “I never did a thing alone on the stage,” she says of the one-woman show that she first performed in 1999. “It has very specific demands that I hadn’t confronted before, not to mention the fact that it was sixty-seven manuscript pages of lines — I’d never learned that many lines before.” Rose is the story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who is sitting shiva, mourning the loss of a young Palestinian girl. For two hours, Dukakis sits on a wooden bench at center stage and speaks to the audience as if they were friends joining her. “It doesn’t sound like it, but there’s an awful lot of humor in it,” Dukakis says. “Then it also becomes political and very moving.”
To fully embody the role of Rose, Dukakis channeled her own life experience into the performance. “You really need to figure out why you’re going out on stage,” Dukakis says. “It has to be personal because you’re not just going on stage to do good acting — there has to be a reason to put yourself through something like that.” Although these overtones H might not be evident in her performance, Dukakis’s mother serves as her muse in Rose. “It has to do with the things that I knew were so important to her,” she says. “I sat on the bench to reaffirm my mother’s belief in those things.”
“Above all, Olympia is a feminist and a great teacher for all women,” says Lynne Bolton. “She helps us understand our place in world history and culture and ultimately our value in society.” Bolton isn’t the only one praising Dukakis for championing women on and off the stage. This spring, she was awarded the United Nations Women in Films Award. Now, as she prepares to perform at the White Heron this July, this distinguished actress will be giving audiences another glimpse of her power on stage.