Sometimes nervousness can be an asset: For four-time Tony Award winner Zoe Caldwell, in Boston on May 5 for one of her too-infrequent performances of the one-woman show she’s been honing for 18 years, her admitted case of the nerves brought out seldom-seen aspects of this usually indomitable, no-prisoners-taken actress.
Looking surprisingly small and lonely on the large Boston U. Theater stage, Caldwell projected vulnerability, fragility and cozy warmth (along with the more expected wit, humor and dramatic expertise). Her one-nighter is probably not the sort of show that could sustain a long run, but presented at the right time in the right place it could blossom in New York.
Accompanied by a supportive onstage pianist, Carl J. Danielsen, Caldwell quickly transformed the theater into an intimate living room, as if she were entertaining a few close friends. For someone who is a past master at the big gesture, she painted most of her evening with swift, delicate strokes as she ranged from “Waltzing Matilda,” the unofficial Australian national anthem that gives her show its title, to bits of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Jean Brodie, Sarah Bernhardt, Katharine Hepburn, Enid Bagnold, Medea — and, of course, Maria Callas. She also includes some amusing suburban doggerel she has written about her experiences as a Westchester matron.
Following her introductory “Waltzing Matilda” music on the piano, Caldwell launches into a poem with which her husband, director and producer Robert Whitehead, wooed and won her. The drollery here helps set the tone for the whole evening.
Along the way Caldwell impersonates with rare skill numerous remarkable women, fictional and actual, including Hepburn (reciting the famous “calla lilies” lines in the voices of both the young and the old Kate). There are stories about Hepburn and Bagnold, mentions of Martha Graham, a risible piece about the song of the humpbacked whale, and a plea for saving trees.
When she comes to Callas, rather than attempting to excerpt anything from Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” she presents a tribute through a remarkably astute overview of the diva’s life and death as seen through the prism of Greek tragedy.
After reprising a doggerel piece she wrote when she was in a deep funk over approaching 50 (she’s now 63 and untroubled by it), the Australian Caldwell explained and translated “Waltzing Matilda” for her predominantly American audience before singing it to its wistful ending. She needn’t have been nervous: Her one-woman show is too gently ingratiating for terror to play any part in it.