MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. — Nearly 40 years ago, Sir Tyrone Guthrie consoled a dejected Patrick Stewart by saying he hoped the young actor eventually would work for him at his new theater in America.
Now, that day has arrived as Stewart tackles "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Guthrie Theater.
"He was responsible for a big disappointment in my early career," Stewart remembers of Guthrie, the late Irish actor and director who founded his namesake theater in Minneapolis in 1963.
Guthrie had chosen another actor over Stewart for the role of Angelo in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" that Guthrie was directing at the Bristol Old Vic in England.
Perhaps Stewart, 60, should have made his Guthrie debut a lot sooner.
The British-born actor has been playing to full houses and standing ovations as he and Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl portray the bitter, battling couple George and Martha in Edward Albee's 1962 classic. The show opened to glowing reviews March 2 and is sold out through Sunday, the end of its run.
The Guthrie Theater features a deep-thrust stage surrounded by the audience on three sides. "The experience of playing here is that you have a wall of people on three sides of you, so the dynamics of that focus are very intense. ... I sometimes think it must have been like this in the Colosseum," Stewart said.
And the audience responds strongly to the play. "A lot of people have commented that the play is much funnier than they expected," Stewart said, pausing while eating a sandwich a couple of hours before a performance the first of five he will do that weekend.
"And certainly in Act 1, a lot of Act 2, it is very funny, and it's meant to be funny. Edward Albee intended that. But it surprised all of us that so many people, and reviewers, were surprised by that."
Stewart thinks that may be because many people are more familiar with the 1966 Mike Nichols movie that starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha.
"Which is not as funny as the play actually is," Stewart said.
Director David Esbjornson, who directed the Guthrie's "Virginia Woolf," agreed. "My sense is that people are discovering the play," Esbjornson said. "I don't think that many people have experience with the play itself, and the play itself is very funny. ... It (the movie) really isn't his play."