Above: Greta Lambert and James Bowen are the stars of ASF’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” (contributed)
When Geoffrey Sherman, producing artistic director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, first mentioned she might be right for the title role in “Driving Miss Daisy,” Greta Lambert was taken aback.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” she recalls with a laugh. “She’s 72 years old, and that’s just the beginning of the play.”
Sherman persisted, informing Lambert that Dana Ivey was just 46 when she originated the role of the feisty Daisy Werthan off-Broadway in 1987.
“I told him, ‘I’ve got quite a few years on that, but alright, I’ll do it,’” says Lambert, who declines to give her age. “I’ll just tell you I’m more than 10 years older than (Ivey) was. I’m closer to Daisy’s age than Dana Ivey’s age was.”
In her three decades at ASF, Lambert has been a chameleon of sorts, seemingly effortlessly going back and forth between some of Shakespeare’s grandest dames and other leading female roles. Her first ASF role was in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” playing Titania in the show that was ASF’s first in Montgomery after years in Anniston.
“I was living in New York at the time, and at that particular point in my life, the last thing I wanted to do was come back to Alabama,” says Lambert, who graduated from Hueytown High School and has theater degrees from the University of Montevallo and the University of Florida. “But my agent submitted me, and wouldn’t you know I got the entire season playing fabulous roles.”
But it almost never happened, recalls Martin L. Platt, co-founder of ASF and now the producer of Broadway shows such as the new “Dames at Sea” and the Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Lambert first auditioned for Platt in Anniston, and “I didn’t really pay much attention,” he says. The second time, though, Lambert’s resume neglected to mention her Alabama ties.
“And I loved her and hired her,” Platt says. “She really hasn’t ever let me live that down.”
Lambert thought that season at ASF would be her only one.
“The plan wasn’t to stay,” she says. “But I came down, and I loved it … I opened a theater in my home state, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be a part of all that. Being a native Alabamian made it all the more special.”
With the exception of two seasons in Los Angeles, where she appeared on the TV series “Picket Fences” and “Young Riders,” Lambert has performed at ASF every year since. She met her husband, actor Rodney Clark, in Montgomery, and she became ASF’s director of education about eight years ago.
“I love the kind of plays they do here, the work they do, and this gorgeous, amazing complex,” Lambert says of ASF, which since 1985 has been housed in a nationally acclaimed complex in Montgomery’s Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park.
Over the years, Lambert’s roles have included leading women in many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as starring roles in shows including “Doubt,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Private Lives,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Shirley Valentine,” “Pygmalion,” “Hedda Gabler” and “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
The latter was part of ASF’s Southern Writers Project, and it’s one of Lambert’s favorites.
“I played an Appalachian woman named Ivy Rowe from age 12 to age 70, and I only left the stage at intermission,” she says.
Lambert has also left Montgomery for roles from time to time, most recently for the world premiere at Utah’s Pioneer Theatre of Kenneth Jones’ “Alabama Story,” which had an early reading at ASF’s Southern Writers Project. In it, Lambert played the role of Alabama’s state librarian, standing up against censorship and racism in 1950s Alabama.
Jones was thrilled that Lambert created the role in Utah, but he has high praise for her work in Montgomery, too.
“Greta represents an important population in American theater: resident actors and actresses who live in the same town where they make art, enriching many seasons’ worth of local work and broadening our view of what the American theater community is,” he says. “That is, it’s not all about New York City and international stars. Minneapolis and D.C. and Louisville and Denver and Montgomery have their own stars, and the light they give off is vivid.”
Platt agrees, pointing to the variety of roles that Lambert has been able to portray.
“Over the years she proved again and again that really whatever assignment one gave her she could do a really fabulous job at,” he says.
And that, presumably, includes the role of Daisy Werthan, which Lambert is tackling through Nov. 1 in a production directed by John Manfredi. The show also stars James Bowen as Hoke and Brik Berkes as Boolie, Daisy’s son.
“It’s a daunting task to take on a role that Jessica Tandy has made so famous, but unfortunately there’s not much I can do about that,” Lambert says. “Everyone has seen the movie. My next-door-neighbor can quote lines from it.”
But the play is a much different experience, Lambert says.
“There’s such detail in the movie, and any play, especially this one, is just so representative,” she says. “Just by the nature of the play, it’s so different that I hope people immediately put them in different categories.”
Alfred Uhry’s play, about a wealthy Jewish widow living in Atlanta from the 1940s until the early ‘70s, earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and its themes resonate decades later, Lambert says.
“I think it’s going to surprise people,” she says. “They think they know what it’s about, and it’s so funny for a while. Then it kind of smacks you toward the end of the play.”
“Driving Miss Daisy” runs at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Octagon Theatre through Nov. 1. For ticket information, got to asf.net or call 800-841-4273.