Entertainment » Theatre

Older women’s sexual liberation - Sharon Gless on "A Round-Heeled Woman"

by Richard Dodds
Friday Jan 8, 2010

Sharon Gless became a lesbian icon playing a tough unmarried cop in Cagney & Lacey. She added gay men to her following as the ultimate PFLAG mom in Queer as Folk. And now she may gather up the AARP crowd who haven't yet retired their libido. In A Round-Heeled Woman, now in previews at Z Space's Theatre Artaud, Gless plays a 66-year-old woman who decides to end a long sexual drought by placing a personals ad in The New York Review of Books.

If Gless, herself 66, has been fearless as a straight woman embracing her queer following - in just the past few months, she appeared at the SF International LGBT Film Festival, marched with Dykes on Bikes during Pride, and celebrated the holidays with the Gay Men's Chorus at the Castro - she said, "I didn't know I was fearless until I attempted this play. Now that we're really doing it, it's, like, gulp. Now I really have to have sex with all these people on stage."

Gless fell in love with Jane Juska's 2003 memoir A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, and with the encouragement of her husband Barney Rosenzweig (who produced Cagney & Lacey), she optioned the book as a possible vehicle for herself. But nobody in television, film, or the theater seemed interested in putting flesh onto Juska's words. "A lot of people got uptight about it," Gless said, "about the idea of an older woman having sexuality."

Juska, now a retired teacher living in Berkeley, was 66 in 1999 when she placed an ad in The New York Review of Books that read, "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." She received 63 responses, from men ages 32 to 84, and she ended up having sex with many of them during the next year. That a best-selling book would emerge from those adventures, as well as an often-troubled personal life that led up to them, was not, she has insisted, even a distant notion when she placed her ad.

Juska attended the first read-through of the script in San Francisco, and will be at the official opening on Jan. 16. It's more by fortuitous coincidence than by design that the world premiere of her book's stage adaptation is happening in her Bay Area backyard. It required a circuitous journey for the production to happen at all.

On a trip to London a few years ago, Gless and her husband had lunch with English playwright Jane Prowse, and they gave her a copy of Juska's book. "We said, 'Are we crazy trying to make something out of this?' We wanted an objective opinion from someone we respected," Gless recalled during a rehearsal break. "Six months later, Jane Prowse called, said she had been busy getting married, but had taken the book on her honeymoon, and absolutely wanted to be the one to turn it into a play."

Prowse in turn enlisted London producer Brian Eastman, who had presented Gless in a West End stage adaptation of Stephen King's Misery. "God bless the British," Gless said, "because they had the nerve and saw the potential in it. But then Brian said, 'It's too American to start off in the West End. We need to play it in America first.'"

Gless ruled out suggestions that they start in New York or Chicago, and San Francisco became the consensual target. "Brian and Jane would fly in to meet with the different theaters here, and everybody shined us on, and we thought, well, that's it. But then Chris Smith, who was leaving the Magic Theatre, said he'd do it, and he brought in Theatre Artaud and all these wonderful San Francisco actors."

In addition to Gless, who, as Jane Juska, never leaves the stage, the cast includes local luminaries Tracy Ross, Anne Darragh, and Ray Reinhardt, with former SFer Ian Scott McGregor and Hollywood actor Stephen Macht also featured. Other than Gless, all the actors portray multiple roles, which include Juska's husband, father, son, therapist, and a stripper, not to mention several of the men who answered her call for sex.

"It's not just about Jane having sex, otherwise it would be porn," Gless said. "It's her entire emotional journey."

The cast of characters also includes a husband-hunting old-maidish heiress, the title character in Miss Mackenzie, the 1865 comic novel by Anthony Trollope who was cited in Juska's original personals ad. "When Jane read the script, I think that she was most excited that we actually have Margaret Mackenzie in the play," Gless said. "When she came to the reading with the cast, she was very quiet, and I couldn't bring myself to make eye contact with her until it was over. And she had tears in her eyes."

There will be more eye-to-eye contact on Jan. 11 when Gless and Juska participate in an onstage interview with TV personality Jan Wahl at Theatre Artaud to benefit the Z Space/Word for Word program.

"I'm very nervous about that," Gless said. "Jan Wahl is obviously stellar in her field, and Jane is a very intelligent, well-spoken woman, and then there's me."

A Round-Heeled Woman is set to run through Feb. 7, but a holdover of a week or two is possible if the ticket demand is there, and if the producers of Burn Notice can work around her role as the obsessive mother of a renegade spy as the cable series begins filming a new season. (The current season resumes on Jan. 21 with a guest appearance by Cagney & Lacey co-star Tyne Daly, who, coincidentally, will be at the Rrazz Room on Jan. 12-16.)

So, whatever the critical and popular response to A Round-Heeled Woman, any future productions will have to wait until Gless finishes filming the next season of Burn Notice.

"I am so falling in love with the cast here, because it's a very complicated production to attempt, and we all feel very daring," Gless said. "It's going to be very difficult for me to leave."

A Round-Heeled Woman will run through Feb. 7 at Z Space at Project Artaud. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 626-0453 or go to www.aroundheeledwoman.com.

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com


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