The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters (1964), starring Kim Stanley (center)

An article in the May 1 issue of Pasatiempo took me decades back in time. It was a portrait of Kim Stanley, a woman born in New Mexico, who became one of the greatest actors to ever grace the American stage and screen. The article returned me to a time in my life when I was privileged, indeed honored, to work with her.

Kim had a reputation for never faking an emotion, for using only those in performance that arose naturally — provided, of course, they served the play she was doing. “Trust and go only with your purest emotions” could have been her motto if she’d ever had one. So, imagine the wave of distress that overcame me when I, a 24-year-old acting in his first Broadway play, flubbed a line that I was sure would shatter that well-deserved reputation.

The incident occurred in 1964 in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a Broadway production directed by Lee Strasberg in which Kim and several other major theater actors starred. We were in the middle of the play’s second act. Kim (playing Masha) and Kevin McCarthy (Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin) — each character married to someone else — were seated together at a table downstage where they struggled to express the illicit love the two felt for each other. I was at a dining table further upstage next to Shirley Knight (Irina), with whom I was singing a popular Russian song. The song was one of loneliness the playwright made use of to speak for the two lovers who were not permitted to give voice to

their love.

When the song came to its end, it was my character’s job to lighten the scene’s tense mood. I was to slam my fist down hard on the table and, employing my most booming voice, shout to actor Luther Adler: “Doctor, how old are you?” To which his reply was, “Thirty-two.” A small stage-laugh followed (Luther was clearly more than twice that age). Meanwhile, Miss Stanley rose and started back to our table where she angrily told me to get myself up so she could have my chair. For some bizarre reason, that evening the words that left my mouth were, “Doctor! What time is it?!”

Every member of the cast froze in place with one or two emitting a few squirmy giggles. Every eye onstage was glued to me, wondering how the hell I’d get myself out of that. Finally, I got my brain reconnected, and I shouted (awkwardly, I’m sure): “And furthermore, doctor, how old are you!!?”

Luther, now cackling with laughter, bellowed his punch line. “Thirty-two,” which cracked up everyone onstage — including Kim, who rose from her seat and started back toward me.

I cringed because instead of approaching with the annoyance the play called for, she was laughing harder than anyone else. Good God, I thought, what have I done? How would this star, of whom it was said was incapable of making an untrue move onstage, switch from this laughter to pesky annoyance and order me out of my seat? My quaking heart told me that the error I’d made would not only change that night’s performance, it would subsequently make its way through New York’s gossip machine and stain the reputation of a spectacular talent.

And all I could do was watch.

With each step Kim took, her laughter grew louder and louder and louder until she reached my chair. Then, with an emotional force that must have shaken the entire theater, she roared like a lioness whose cubs had been snatched: “Get up off that chair! I want to sit down!”

I leapt up so fast that I caught my boot in the chair’s legs. I stumbled, fortunately catching myself in time.

Act II continued to its end.

I stopped by Kim’s dressing room to apologize. She gave me a hug — giggling about it — and told me she thought I’d handled the situation well. It took weeks before the men in the cast — Luther, Bob Loggia, Kevin McC — stopped greeting me with: “Hey, David, what time is it?” which they asked at the top of their voices.

I learned that later in life that Kim turned to teaching. I’d since turned from acting to writing and directing, so I never formally studied acting with her. When I look back to our moment, though, I count it as perhaps the finest lesson this young actor had ever been given. Trust your emotions; don’t fake them. Embrace them. Use them to take you where you want to go. That’s what Kim Stanley taught me one night when I thought I’d destroyed her reputation.

David Paulsen has worked on and off Broadway, in London’s West End and Chicago’s The Second City. He’s also the former producer, writer, and frequent director of TV’s Dallas, Knots Landing, and Dynasty. Paulsen splits his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

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