Sharon Gless’ journey to her South Florida stage debut began a decade ago on a Sunday morning at the Fisher Island home she shares with her husband, producer Barney Rosenzweig.
“Barney and I had had a huge fight. He was reading The New York Times and came over to where I was sitting at my desk. He threw the paper down and said, ‘If you had any balls, you’d go after this,’” says Gless, who plays the star spy’s chain-smoking mom on the made-in-Miami Burn Notice, one of cable TV’s top-rated series.
The story Rosenzweig plopped on the desk was an interview with teacher-turned-author Jane Juska, who talked about her provocatively titled memoir A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. Gless read the article and called her lawyer.
“I said, ‘I want it,’” she says of the book that would become her page-to-stage passion. “I hadn’t even read it yet.”
After a year of vying with a major studio for the rights to Juska’s story, Gless got them. Following the work’s long developmental process and its workshop tryout a year ago in San Francisco, she is spending her Burn Notice hiatus this month in the undeniably intimate confines of GableStage, playing a woman whose personals ad changed her life. Now in previews, the play officially opens Friday.
That fateful ad, placed by the intelligent, well-read Juska in The New York Review of Books more than a decade ago, went like this: “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.” And no, Juska didn’t mean “trollop,” as in a promiscuous woman. She referred to Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist and author of Miss Mackenzie, about a dutiful, ordinary, “older” single woman’s search for love.
“She asked for sex but got a lot more,” Gless says of Juska. “After 30 years of not being touched, she wanted that. She never let herself get defeated.”
And how. Juska is now 77, still living in Berkeley, retired from teaching writing and English to high-school kids, college students and Death Row inmates at San Quentin. She has not, however, abandoned the reconnection with a part of her that was dormant for three decades as she taught and raised her son.
“I do have an active sex life,” says Juska, who is in a relationship. “I’m certainly making up for all those years when I didn’t.”
That the Emmy Award-winning Gless, whose vibrant characters include TV cop Christine Cagney of Cagney & Lacey, Debbie Novotny of the Showtime series Queer as Folk and Madeline Westen of USA Network’s Burn Notice, first envisioned A Round-Heeled Woman as a television series isn’t surprising. Though she has acted onstage a number of times — she originated the role of the deranged fan in Simon Moore’s London version of Stephen King’s Misery in 1992 —Gless began her acting career in 1974 as a Universal Studios contract player, building a resume heavy with TV and movie roles. But as she shopped A Round-Heeled Woman, she found TV executives cold to the idea of a show about an older woman’s sexual adventures.
So Gless tried Plan B. She had met British writer-director Jane Prowse through Moore, Prowse’s ex. The two agreed to work together on a stage version of Juska’s book, with Gless starring and Prowse turning Juska’s memoir into a script.
“Sharon had an idea of how much more forgiving of older women the British are,” says Prowse, citing Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Brenda Blethyn as mature actors who continue to play roles involving sensuality and sex. “This is a very topical issue. Jane’s age makes it all the more shocking. We have an image of 67-year-olds as our mothers were, but there’s a difference with the baby boom generation.”
Though Gless is a decade younger than Juska — “I am now the age by which she wanted to be laid,” Gless cracks — the down-to-earth actress identifies with the adventuresome writer. Both have battled weight issues. Both have felt the ageism that can render older women invisible. Both make a practice of facing their fears by doing what scares them.
In Juska’s case, that would include placing her ad, flying all over the country to meet men young and old, then discovering she got at least as much from their conversations as from sex. For Gless, the demons include predictable bouts of stage fright and, at GableStage, the proximity of 150 audience members as she’s doing scenes involving phone sex, public sexual encounters and a rip-roaring orgasm.
“The audience there is so close,” says Gless, who has been to a number of productions at the award-winning theater.
Gless first talked to artistic director Joseph Adler about doing a Round-Heeled Woman at GableStage after seeing his production of Sarah Kane’s controversial, shocking Blasted there last season. Though the play has two outside producers, Brian Eastman and Jonathan Reinis, attached to it and its potential London and Off-Broadway runs, the Prowse-directed GableStage production stars Gless alongside South Florida actors Stephen G. Anthony, Antonio Amadeo, Howard Elfman, Laura Turnbull and Kim Ostrenko. Set designer Lyle Baskin, lighting designer Jeff Quinn, sound designer Matt Corey and costume designer Ellis Tillman, GableStage veterans all, have brought A Round-Heeled Woman to physical and aural life.
Adler, who says he doesn’t want GableStage to become a “presenting organization that hangs things on [star] names,” nonetheless felt that saying yes to Gless was a good idea.
“Sharon is committed to this area. She lives here, she shoots Burn Notice here,” Adler says. “She’s a wonderful actor and a terrific lady. There nothing even slightly diva-ish about her. Both Jane [Prowse] and Sharon are smart, capable women. And the play has a terrific cast of South Florida actors.”
One of those, the Carbonell Award-winning Amadeo, plays both Juska’s estranged son and her youngest — and most intellectually compatible — lover.
He agrees that Gless, though a star, is also just another hard-working actor.
“She’s present, in the moment, every second we’re working on the play, which speaks to her talent,” he says. “She is who she is for a reason. She’s a great actor and a great human being. . . . She is insecure, like many of us are. But even though she’s terrified, she makes her choices, and when the moment comes, she’ll just do it. That’s real courage.”
Gless and Prowse have great hopes for the play with its message of going after fulfillment at any age. They’d like to see A Round-Heeled Woman done in London and maybe Off-Broadway. Broadway? That notion makes Gless nervous.
“I can just see it: ‘TV Cop Live Onstage.’ I think London is more generous to actors,” she says.
Juska, who saw the play twice in San Francisco, is also hoping the production does well. She wouldn’t mind if A Round-Heeled Woman became a TV series or movie. But she has no intention of traveling to South Florida to see the latest version of her funny, smart, inspiring story.
“Imagine your sex life put onstage,” she says. “And everybody you’ve ever known comes to see it. It was just torment!”