An emotional ride with ‘Life’

Actress tackles role on Harlequin Production stage that won Lily Tomlin a Tony Award

Contributing writerJanuary 17, 2014 

Terri Weagant stars in the one-woman production of “The Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”

COURTESY PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

If you know about the one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” you probably already know it was written for Lily Tomlin.

Comedy icon Tomlin made the show’s characters — most notably Trudy, a homeless woman who is convinced that aliens are monitoring her brain — into cultural icons, winning a Tony in the process.

That might be one reason the play, which debuted in 1985, has not often been performed since, except by Tomlin, who revived it in 2000 on Broadway.

That the show is so closely allied with the actress who originated the roles didn’t discourage Seattle’s Terri Weagant, who stars in the Harlequin Productions play opening Thursday.

“Actors have originated roles and left a great indelible mark on them, and it would be a shame not to produce these plays because we’re afraid of not hitting the mark,” Weagant said. “It’s words on a page. I will never be able to do what Lily Tomlin did, but I wouldn’t want to, either.

“I can’t do what she can do, and she can’t do what I can do.”

Weagant, who performed in a production of the play in 2009 in Seattle and on tour, said Tomlin does influence her portrayal of Trudy and the other colorful characters in Jane Wagner’s play about American life in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Wagner is Tomlin’s longtime partner and collaborator and now wife; the couple were married New Year’s Eve.)

“I was so familiar with her performance of it, and I’m sure that little things sneak in,” Weagant said. “There are parts of Trudy that are paying an homage to Lily Tomlin. But physically and vocally speaking, we are very different types of people.”

But any similarities or differences don’t worry her.

“You don’t want to sketch out a blueprint of where these characters need to go by trying to do the opposite of what someone else did,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily honor the script.”

The actress gained acclaim for the roles, which include punk rocker, prostitute and aging feminist, during her earlier stint in the role.

“Weagant embraces the intense physicality of her role, rapidly shape-shifting from one character to another,” Tom Keogh wrote in a Seattle Times review. “Whether storming a stark space as a teenage punk-performance artist (abandoned by her own performance-artist mother) or personifying three very different feminist friends in conversation or shuffling along as bag lady Trudy — who claims to be in touch with aliens — Weagant carefully delineates and realizes each character.”

Scot Whitney, Harlequin’s managing artistic director, is excited to have her performing in Olympia, this time directed by Keira McDonald of Seattle.

“I’ve been trying to get Terri Weagant down here from Seattle to perform with us for a long time,” Whitney said. “She’s an amazing actress and such a powerful personality. She’s done some radically different and always brilliant work.”

So when Weagant asked him if he’d produce “Signs” in Olympia, he decided to do it.

Weagant’s fascination with “Signs” began early, she said.

“This show has kind of been following me my whole life,” she said. “It was one of the first plays I ever read, and I just loved it.”

And when she moved to Seattle to attend Cornish College of the Arts, where she now teaches, it was the first play she went to see with the college. Tomlin was polishing her revival at the Seattle Repertory Theatre before taking it back to Broadway.

“It was just incredible,” Weagant said. “It takes you on this huge emotional ride. I just loved the play.”

The Search for signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

What: Harlequin Productions presents the one-woman comedy, written for Lily Tomlin, includes many characters such as a homeless woman explaining life on Earth to the alien creatures monitoring her brain.

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 23-25, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, Feb. 6-8 and 13-15, with matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 and 9

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: $31 for adults, $28 for military and seniors, $20 for students and those younger than 25. Discounted rush tickets are available a half-hour prior to curtain. For the Jan. 29 performance, pay what you can.

More information: 360-786-0151 or harlequinproductions.org

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