Leading Ladies

Suzanne Bouchard and Marianne Owen have played their share of ingénues — the winsome young love interests. The plucky daughters. The Juliets and Ophelias.

But both of these award-winning, Seattle-based actresses are currently enjoying another fulfilling chapter in their long-running careers. Thanks to talent, hard work in a tough field, and their vaunted reputations among audiences and fellow artists, the longtime colleagues are still in their prime after decades in the spotlight.

In the last year, at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), Bouchard memorably portrayed a narcissistic actress in “Stupid Fucking Bird,” an Aaron Posner play based on Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” And she won raves at ArtsWest Playhouse as a determined woman confronting dark family secrets in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.”

Owen’s recent roles, meanwhile, have ranged from a legendary London sleuth’s efficient housekeeper (in R. Hamilton Wright’s “Sherlock Holmes and The American Problem” at Seattle Repertory Theatre), to the jolly Victorian hostess Mrs. Fezziwig in ACT’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Though Hollywood too often emphasizes youth over maturity (“The close-ups will kill you!” laughs Owen), these actresses also fill the occasional film or TV role. But live theater is their first love and mainstay in the lively Seattle drama scene they’ve helped to encourage and nurture.

Owen arrived in town in 1988 after notable stints with Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut and Boston’s American Repertory Theater. She signed on as a company member at Seattle Repertory Theatre under then-artistic chief Daniel Sullivan, and soon drew admiration as the feminist lead character in “The Heidi Chronicles,” a Wendy Wasserstein play that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

“I was delighted to come here and join such a great group of artists,” said the sunny actress as she sipped tea opposite Bouchard in a Capitol Hill restaurant. “I’d played a lot of older roles, but here I was getting all these younger parts. I was a 40-year-old virgin in ‘Much Ado About Nothing!’”

Bouchard arrived in the early 1990s after studying acting and working in summer stock in the Midwest. “I walked into this roving Seattle company of actors that worked all over town,” noted Bouchard, a slender figure with close-cropped dark hair. “My friends kept hiring me, and every show I did felt like a master class in acting.”

Aging in their profession can be scary, they agree. And yet, their talent and experience have led local directors (including Owen’s husband, Kurt Beattie) to seek out plum assignments for these seasoned players who can gracefully switch between broad comedy and high drama.

Bouchard has relished recently playing American poet Elizabeth Bishop in “Dear Elizabeth” at Seattle Rep — a work based on Bishop’s decades-long correspondence with fellow poet Robert Lowell — and the imperious Queen Elizabeth I in Friedrich Schiller’s verse play “Mary Stuart” at ACT.

“It’s the complex roles, that’s the stuff that draws me,” Bouchard reflected. “Often female parts for older women can get relegated to the wife whose husband is leaving her, or the stereotypical mom. But if it’s a woman who has some power, and who has to make big decisions, that’s important to me.”

Owen found a similarly appealing challenge in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” at ACT a while back. With great sensitivity, she portrayed a Southern elder, dependent on her children, who defies them by journeying back to her hometown. “It was wonderful,” Owen recalled. “So many people told me how moved they were by that character.”

Since acting is piecework for performers of every age, Owen and Bouchard have also cultivated other, less “glamorous” pursuits. Both are avid gardeners. “The best ‘off’ day for me is when I’m in my garden mucking around in filthy clothes, and don’t even look at myself in the mirror until I’m getting ready for bed,” Bouchard reported.

Owen is an accomplished weaver and knitter as well. “I’ve always offset theater with doing other things. I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket.”

Mentoring the younger actors they work with is an obligation they take seriously. “I stress to them the importance of versatility, because you stretch and learn that way,” Owen noted.

“I always ask directors to give [critical]notes to the whole cast at one time,” said Bouchard. “There’s how I learned, watching everyone function as a team. And if I have something to say about someone’s work, I’ll take an actor aside and ask if they care to hear it.”

But more challenges await in their own careers. Bouchard juggles multiple roles in “Bring Down the House,” Seattle Shakespeare Company’s all-female adaptation of two Shakespeare history plays, which runs Jan. 25 – March 12 at the Center Theatre.

And Owen is set to appear this spring in the Broadway musical “The Secret Garden,” based on the beloved children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (It plays April 14 – May 6 at 5th Avenue Theatre.)

We can be glad that for these Seattle leading ladies, the show will go on.

Misha Berson writes about the arts for The Seattle Times and many other publications, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause Books/Hal Leonard).

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