The veteran actress Dee Maaske never reveals her age, though she refers to it occasionally, speaking of “women in her category.” The oblique allusion allows her to skirt the specificity of a number, though she readily admits, “I’ve been doing this for a while now.”
A longtime member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival acting company, Maaske has had an enviable professional acting career that has taken her around the world.
Besides longevity in a culture enamored with newness and youth, the category Maaske finds herself in also encompasses understanding of her craft and talent to apply it. Her skills allow her to comfortably slip into the intricately layered character of 91-year-old Vera Joseph in the comedy drama “4000 Miles,” opening this weekend at Capital Stage.
“There are more plays, stories that include people in my category than before,” Maaske said after a rehearsal at the Capital Stage Theatre. “There was a big hole, but generationally we’re moving into a place where audiences are truly interested in it.”
In Amy Herzog’s highly acclaimed play, the college-age neo-hippie Leo, played by Teddy Spencer, unexpectedly shows up at the New York City apartment of his grandmother Vera, played by Maaske. Leo is estranged from his parents and at the end of a cross-country bicycle trip that had a traumatic episode. Vera, formerly married to a famous communist-leaning writer, lives alone, and Leo ends up staying with her. There are laughs in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, but it’s not a “battle of the generations” comedy.
Maaske looks for roles “about women who have either led interesting lives or are in interesting situations with other people and have something to say from time to time.”
“I truly think Amy Herzog has done that in this play,” Maaske said.
Vera is a holdover from Herzog’s previous play “After the Revolution,” also a hit in New York. Maaske and the women who played Vera in those plays (Mary Louise Wilson in “4000 Miles” and Lois Smith in “After the Revolution”) often do the same parts at different theaters. She called them both “wonderful actresses.”
“I can name probably on the fingers of both my hands women who are in my category who are working in this country,” Maaske said.
Smith and Maaske also share a connection with the great American playwright Horton Foote through his signature character Carrie Watts, the elderly central figure in “The Trip to Bountiful” who is desperately trying to journey back to her birthplace.
(Smith won three major awards for her portrayal in the 2006 Off Broadway revival, and Geraldine Page won the best actress Oscar for her performance in the 1985 film. Cicely Tyson won the Tony Award last year for her portrayal of “Mother Watts” in the 2013 Broadway revival.)
Maaske played Carrie at OSF in 2002. Foote saw it and asked her to do the 50th anniversary of the play at the Hartford Stage Co. and the Alley Theatre in Houston.
“That was quite an honor,” Maaske said. “If he hadn’t seen me, it would never have happened, of course. Jean Stapleton was supposed to do it, but was not able to.
“He took me to his home in Texas, and there was an Oscar just sitting on a mantle,” Maaske said of Foote, who was also known as great Texas gentleman. “After every show he’d come down and hug me, and then he’d say, ‘That was wonderful. Just one little thing ...’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, sir?’ ”
Maaske grew up in Baltimore as an adopted child brought into a well-to-do family that sensitively nurtured and cared for her.
“I was very shy, and it concerned my father. He knew a woman in Baltimore, Isabel Burger, who had a children’s experimental theater … and my father called her, and she said in this wonderful voice, ‘Give her to me.’
“I was 8 years old. I went on a Saturday morning, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It saved my life in many ways, and I know that sounds a little dramatic but I was with her all the way through college because I went to Towson College in Baltimore County. I learned really the basics of everything that today people pay a great deal of money to learn in university theater programs.”
Maaske subsequently had an incredibly varied life and career that included working as detective for the Baltimore Police Department and marrying a naval aviator with whom she had four children. She didn’t properly start her professional theater career until they divorced when she was 44. Since then she’s lived the gypsy life of a freelance actor, moving from Denver to Arizona, Seattle, Los Angeles, even here, doing “The Cherry Orchard” for Sacramento Theatre Company in 1990.
In 1984 she auditioned at OSF for the legendary Jerry Turner, who offered her a contract to play Big Momma in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the Duchess in “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”
“I’ve basically not stopped working since then,” Maaske said, listing roles such as Linda in “Death of a Salesman,” Mrs. Helene Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” and Madame Nielsen in Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely performed “Les Blancs.”
“Isabel Berger said to me, ‘You won’t get the roles you were meant to do until you are over 40.’ When you’re 20, you think that’s death, but it was true. There are more great roles for women past 40 than there are prior to that,” Maaske said.
“Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and decide what it is you want to do. Do you want to continue on a certain path that you’re on, or would you like to look for things – projects that truly interest you? That’s I’m doing now.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.