Canadian-born Susan Clark has enjoyed an enviable film and television career. She co-starred with such male film icons as Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Clint Eastwood, Louis Gossett, Gene Hackman and Robert Redford. She won an Emmy for portraying super athlete Babe Didrickson Zaharias in the TV film Babe, followed by a six-year stint in the popular ABC series Webster, co-starring her husband Alex Karras (who died last fall).
But she’s much more at home discussing her first love “live theater.” She beams, “I am finally getting to work with Jose Luis Valenzuela’s Latino Theater Company (LTC) at Los Angeles Theatre Center. This is really exciting.”
Valenzuela is directing the LA premiere of Habitat, by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, opening Saturday, featuring a five-member ensemble that includes Clark, Esperanza America, Sal Lopez, Nina Silver and Paul Nguyen. Clark recalls, “I first became aware of LTC when I was on the board of the California International Theatre Festival. A couple of years ago we moved [part of] the festival from the town of Calabasas to downtown LA.
“I started going to their shows, and I was so impressed with the quality of the work and the plays. I thought LTC’s production of Evelina Fernandez’s trilogy of plays, Faith, Hope and Charity, was an amazing work. Valenzuela is very supportive and faithful to his actors. They are talented, well-trained and committed. So I felt very privileged to be invited to perform this play with them.”
Habitat is set in a benign, fictional community, located somewhere in North America. The tension begins when Chance (Lopez), a social activist for troubled teens, buys a house in this community, determined to set up a group home for these youth. “My character, Margaret, considers herself to be a quite honorable, compassionate woman. Yet she becomes the leader of the resistance against Chance and the group home.
“The play deals with a community and the desire to keep the community safe. Each of the characters in this play hates change. They resist it. It deals with the mindset of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). Yes, it is a good thing to have a group home to take care of at-risk youth, just don’t put it in my neighborhood. And what works so well in this production is that the two characters who are the “bosses of the block” — as one of the characters calls us — are Anglos.
“I am fascinated with the emotional journey Margaret takes. She meets the young Latina girl Raine (America), who has moved into the group home and she likes her very much. For a variety of reasons they strike up a friendship. But when Margaret goes against having the group home open in her community, the young woman confronts her. Margaret realizes she has made a terrible mistake but by then, the so-called wheels of justice have started grinding and there is no turning back. Each of us has to live with our choices and our decisions we make in life, and hers is a pretty grim one.”
Although playwright Thompson is not well-known or frequently produced in the US, she is the author of 20 plays — the first of which, The Crackwalker, has received more than one LA production. Thompson is the first Canadian to win the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (for Palace of the End is in 2008) and received the honor of Officer of the Order of Canada for her contributions to the arts.
Habitat was first produced in Canada in 2001 and in the United States in 2003, in an Off-Broadway production by Epic Theatre Ensemble. Clark would like to see more Canadian plays produced in LA. “Judith Thompson’s play has been done all over Canada. It has been done at the Manchester Exchange in the UK. And it is just now that it is having its Los Angeles premiere. Canadian plays are not done too often in Los Angeles. We do English plays and Latino plays but not so much from Canada.”
Of course, Clark acknowledges that Los Angeles has been quite welcoming to a plethora of Canadian acting talent, herself included. Born in Sarnia, Ontario, Clark made her professional debut in a 1955 production of Silk Stockings, starring Don Ameche. Following her studies at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Clark made the move to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s and eventually was put under a 10-year contract to Universal Studios. Although the studio kept her busy starring in such notable films as Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), Valdez Is Coming (1971), Skin Game (1971) and Night Moves (1975) and a slew of TV fare, Clark insisted she be allowed time to appear in live theater. Memorable outings include her acclaimed turn as Lady Macbeth (1973) at Seattle Rep and the West Coast premiere of Marsha Norman’s Getting Out (1978) at Mark Taper Forum, directed by Gordon Davidson.
“When Webster ended, I didn’t even think that much about film and TV,” she admits. “I really wanted to work on stage. I have done a lot of work in LA over the years, including Meetin’s on the Porch , Afterplay , Bicoastal Women  and The Importance of Being Earnest [2004, as Lady Bracknell]). I also did about five plays as a member of the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura (including The Glass Menagerie, Dancing at Lughnasa, The Devil’s Disciple and A Delicate Balance).”
Despite her success in the US, Clark has also made a point of working in her home country — in film, on TV and theater. “I thoroughly enjoy working in both Canada and the US. There is a difference. I mentioned that Canadian playwrights haven’t had great success in the US. But they have some advantages at home that are not available to US playwrights.”
“The business of playwriting is different in Canada. In Canada, a good writer can get a grant, from the provincial government or from the federal government, and it can be substantial — $25,000 a year to sit down to write a play. I think it is just shocking that the US doesn’t have national theater or a national theater program. This doesn’t just effect playwriting, it affects language.”
“I know this is discussed endlessly, but I think, in the US, language, per se, just isn’t that important. The actual language, the use of words, the description of events, ideas and images, the alliteration is not considered important or even useful. I read somewhere that language for the average person has been reduced to a hundred words. That’s pretty boring. It is not so in rap music or any kind of music where there is an evocative story of something happening to somebody. But it doesn’t often transfer to live theater.”
“That is one of the reasons I am so happy to be in Habitat. [Thompson] uses language so effectively. The style of the play in the first act is very staccato. There are probably 14 scenes, and some of them are only a page-and-a-half. The playwright understands the need, at first, to get the information out quickly, get the characters established quickly. Then as the play develops into the second act and peoples’ lives begin to unravel and they are forced to face these real traumas, the scenes get longer and more intense. The speeches get more developed and descriptive. The whole play evolves from extremely realistic to poetic realism. And Judith knows what she wants to accomplish. In her dedication, she wrote, “‘This play is dedicated to every group home struggling to survive in a hostile neighborhood.’ This is good stuff.”
Habitat, Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring Street, LA. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through May 12. Tickets: $40. or thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
**All Habitat production photos by Ed Krieger.