Older women tend to fade into invisibility in modern theater, as if graying hair and crow's feet are cause for automatic irrelevance rather than signs of wisdom to be mined for dramatic potential.
It’s a ridiculous shame, really.
Rare—and welcome—are the plays that present not only an aging woman’s perspective but gives older actresses the opportunity to take center stage.
Not that Dandy Barrett is anything like Carrie Watts, the main character in The Trip to Bountiful, presented by the Collective Face Theatre Ensemble May 9-25.
Barrett plays Carrie Watts, an elderly widow looking to escape the home of her son (Mark Rand, Equus) and his pushy wife (played by Karla Knudsen, seen last in Collective Face’s Shadowlands.) She’s a sweet but tragic figure, unaware of the changes that have befallen her tiny Texas hometown since she left decades ago.
“Carrie has lost herself, and she thinks that going home to Bountiful will solve that,” sums up Barrett.
Barrett is the antithesis of the kind of woman who loses herself. After a lifetime of professional success and artistic expression, she appears to know exactly who she is.
Blessed with a distinctive, throaty voice and sparkling eyes, Barrett made her first foray into show biz in the 1960s, working the cabaret circuit.
“I played the Dunes in Las Vegas, made the rounds in Kansas City,” recalls the former lounge singer, dressed in a bright coral blouse, silver hair slicked back.
“Then one Thanksgiving, I found myself sitting at a drugstore counter eating a burger, alone. I decided the road lifestyle just wasn’t for me.”
Instead, the self-professed Army brat went to Washington, D.C. and got a job as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. That led to a gig in government relations, then a corporate position at the Clorox company in Oakland, CA. At a time when most women were still stuck in the secretarial pool, Barrett rose through the ranks with a steely grace and no-nonsense demeanor.
“I was often the only woman in the room, and I was often told that I was too aggressive,” she grins.
“I thought I was just being assertive.”
After a couple of decades, she quit the rat race to pursue a voiceover career, which she enjoyed until the work dried up.
“Celebrities discovered how lucrative voiceover work could be and drove everyone else out,” she recounts with arched eyebrow.
She had no problem scoring another corporate gig, and finished up her career as the assistant vice president of a little start-up called CarMax. Along the way she got married, had kids and is now the grandmother of five. She chose to take an early retirement in Savannah, beguiled by its warm weather and cultural charms.
While she admits to being “of a certain age” (which she does not care to share, thank you very much), Barrett has no intention of letting her God-given talents founder. She had plunged into community theater while her sons were growing up and began seeking out local repertory groups once she landed in the South. In 2007, she met Collective Face artistic director David I.L. Poole, who immediately cast her as the Mother Superior in his production of Agnes of God.
Appearances in Equus and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer followed, and Barrett is deeply involved in every one of the ensemble’s productions as managing director. (Here’s hoping more women of a certain age will enjoy stage time next fall when the Collective Face produces Grey Gardens, a musical revolving around a pair of eccentric, reclusive socialites.)
Yet it’s the role of the naïve dowager in Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful that gives this actress an exceptional—in its rarity as well as its depth—leading role.
“The plot is deceptively simple, but the layers of human interaction are very complex,” says Barrett, whose character expresses the tragedy of an ordinary life to a young woman, Thelma, played by Hannah Lewis. (Bill DeYoung, Gary Shelby and Dennis Edwards round out the rest of the cast.)
Self-assured and comfortable in her own skin, Barrett relates to Carrie’s determination to feel joy, though she is very different kind of woman.
“I definitely identify with her inner strength,” says Barrett.
“She’s an iron fist in a velvet glove.”