Dream of performing play becomes reality

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Kendra Sue Waldman and Joan Benedict Steiger in "Collected Stories." The play, directed by Carmen Maria Milito, performs through Nov. 7.

Joan Benedict Steiger lives out her dream of performing “Collected Stories,” a play her late husband, Rod Steiger, urged her to do.

By Betty Bailey/Special to The Malibu Times

As the spotlights shine at the Malibu Stage Co. Theater this month, actress Joan Benedict Steiger is strolling the boards as Ruth Steiner, a seasoned author and professor in the play “Collected Stories,” by Donald Margulies. Although the play is only halfway through its six-week run, the dream of performing in this particular play has been with the actress since before her late husband, legendary actor Rod Steiger, died two years ago.

“Rod thought the writing was excellent,” said Benedict Steiger, who has made more than a dozen feature films, worked on numerous television shows and starred in a one-woman play about Leona Helmsley. “He thought it would be a wonderful vehicle for me. I’ve always played strong women. We also thought that, since there was a younger person in the play, it would also attract a younger audience.”

The play, directed by Carmen Maria Milito and produced by Terence Davis, opens with a tutorial session between the crusty writer/professor and a young, eager graduate student, Lisa Morrison, played by Kendra Sue Waldman, whose acting credits include the off-Broadway production of “T&A Holding On” and the upcoming cable series “Dante’s Cove.” Waldman’s effervescent character is awed by the mere presence of the hard-boiled author she has studied for years.

As the story unfolds, the audience sees the relationship between the two develop and change over a six-year period. The green, self-doubting young writer blossoms into a confident author in her own right as she evolves from the role of assistant to that of colleague and trusted friend. In turn, the hard-boiled teacher discovers untilled maternal feelings that appear to catch her completely off guard.

“I think the one thing that is so great about this is that I get to grow up six years in about two hours,” Waldman said. “Lisa learns a lot from her mentor, from her professor. In the end, the professor is looking up to the student. It’s a definite rise and fall.”

Director Milito is an accomplished teacher and drama coach. “I read the play and it was just such a contemporary, realistic version of life, it really touched me,” Milito said. “It was Joan’s character needing a companion in her life and the young girl who needed to move on with her own life.”

“It’s so universal,” Benedict Steiger said. “It happens to be about a writer and her protégée but that’s not what it’s really about. It’s about relationships and about life.”

The play is also about the unresolved nature of relationships. In the final scene, the protégée has published her first novel, a story that hits too close to home. In the eyes of one, it is simply telling a good story. To the other, it is nothing short of betrayal.

“There is one line in the play that sums it up perfectly,” Benedict Steiger said. “What relationships are ever truly resolved? Perfectly normal people inexplicably behave badly, they get sick and they die. That’s life.”

Benedict Steiger knows a lot about unresolved relationships. She met Steiger in 1959 when she was a fledgling actress and they had a yearlong affair. When the love affair ended, she married actor John Myhers and toured the country with him as he starred in the national company of “The Sound of Music.” She had been married to Myhers for 32 years when he died of cancer.

A chance meeting at a party between her agent and Steiger prompted a phone call from the actor that would be the first time they had communicated in nearly four decades. They were together two years before tying the knot at their Malibu home. Two years later, Benedict Steiger was a widow once more when the Academy Award winning actor died from surgical complications in 2002.

A photo of Benedict Steiger and her late husband has a place of honor inside the cover of the “Collected Stories” playbill. The play is dedicated to his memory. “I know his spirit was with me,” Steiger said. “I felt like I had to really be superb, especially for him.” She added, “He’d be saying. ‘See, I knew you could do it.’ “

Although the curtain fell two years ago on the life she shared with Steiger, love was patiently waiting in the wings. This past July, Benedict Steiger was watching television when she saw a familiar face, that of actor Jeremy Slate. The two had worked together in the 1959 film, “That Kind of Woman.” Slate played a sailor. Benedict Steiger played a Wave. Benedict Steiger looked Slate up through the Screen Actor’s Guild and gave him a call.

“It was incredible,” Slate said. “I knew, instantly, who she was after 40 years.”

Slate, who had been living in a cabin near Big Sur, has moved to Malibu to be closer to Benedict Steiger. The two hope to work together in future acting projects. As for the huge space Rod Steiger still occupies in Benedict Steiger’s heart, Slate seems completely at ease. “After all,” he said, “I was a huge fan of his.”

“Collected Stories” performs through Nov. 7. More information and tickets can be obtained by calling 310.589.1998.