Close to Home

It would be nice to report that Stephanie Zimbalist’s Santa Barbara debut this month in Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Shelagh Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water” is nothing but a joyous occasion. But the truth is it’s also a sad case of life imitating art.

Zimbalist – perhaps still best known for her stint as Laura Holt in the 1982-87 TV series “Remington Steele” – plays Mary, the “paranoid” sister in a family of three women who have returned to their birth home in the north of England for the funeral of their mother. Zimbalist’s mother, who was also named Stephanie and who lived in Solvang with her husband of 51 years, the actor Efram Zimbalist, Jr., passed away on February 5 after a two-year battle with lung cancer.

In fact, her mother’s illness is the reason the younger Stephanie Zimbalist – who last summer turned down a plum role in the national touring company of “Tea at Five” because she didn’t want to be so far away – decided to accept the role in the first place.

“I took this job to be closer to my mother as she was declining,” Zimbalist said over the telephone just prior to resuming rehearsals late last week. “It’s fifteen minutes to my parents’ house, door to door.”

It’s virtually impossible to imagine taking on any acting gig let alone one so close to the bone at the same time you’re actually grieving for your own mother. And Zimbalist admitted she hasn’t let herself dwell on the similarities between the role and her own life beyond what she needs to perform the part. Asked whether rehearsing the show is helping her move through her own pain, she begged off the question.

“I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” she says. “I couldn’t possibly be that far away from it to even assess it at this point. I can’t tell you what I’m going through, and I’m not even going to start….But I will say I’m not about to act out my feelings. What we do as artists is take in our lives and filter on stage what we need to. Nobody will get the full force of my grief, or feel what I’m going through. There’s no way. You wouldn’t be able to understand what I was saying if I let myself go.”

But, Zimbalist says, she never even gave a second thought to dropping out of the play, as she remembered what happened on a much smaller scale several years ago.

“My sweet, sweet dog was killed in front of me by a coyote three weeks before I was to play a dog, Sylvia, in the first series of productions outside of the original in New York,” she recalls. “I called up and said ‘I can’t do this.’ But then (my dog) came to me and said ‘I will guide you.’ So I called them back and told them I had to do it. That’s why I didn’t even try to get out of this one. We were beginning our third week of rehearsal and I couldn’t let my fellow actors down. But I also have the faith that if it isn’t my mother that will be guiding me, another power will.”

At least she’ll have a close friend nearby throughout the production. By her count, “Memory” marks her ninth collaboration with the director, Jenny Sullivan, an association that began with the 1989 play “The Baby Dance,” written for Zimbalist and Linda Purl.

“All of the ‘Baby Dancers’ have stayed in very close touch,” Zimbalist says. “Jenny and I have so much in common in our lives – we’re both children of performers and huge dog nuts – that it’s almost like she’s directing herself through me. I’m just the vehicle through which she breathes herself on the stage.”

Meanwhile, early rehearsals for “Memory” have also resulted in another, more unexpected trip down memory lane beyond friends and family. It turns out that before she began her professional acting career, the 18-year-old Zimbalist was a budding singer, taking after her paternal grandmother, the soprano Alma Gluck, who at the peak of her career was one of the world’s most successful opera singers. Zimbalist auditioned for Martial Singher, at the time the head of the vocal department at the Curtis Institute of Music (where Efram Sr., a virtuoso violinist, was director) and an instructor at the Music Academy of the West, which led to her becoming a student of famed singer Natalie Bodanya here in Montecito.

“I started in the fall of 1975 and studied on and off with her for six years,” Zimbalist recalls. “So it’s truly a lovely, lovely homecoming to be rehearsing for this play in the here at the Music Academy at the Singher studio, no less.”

It was also on the Music Academy campus that Efram, Sr., heard Stephanie sing formally for the first and only time. “He told me that day that first and foremost I should sing for my own pleasure,” Zimbalist says. “And that’s what I do.”

Indeed, while she believes she could have enjoyed a career in music herself, Zimbalist had no desire to compete with her grandmother’s legacy.

“She was the first artist to sell a million records,” she says. “She sang with [Enrico] Caruso, and was a very big force in the music world – when her dog ran away in New York, it was on the front page of The New York Times. So the footsteps were too big. I couldn’t line up and try to follow that. I didn’t want to debut ‘Mimi’ at the Met and have some critics dig up her notices and compare. I didn’t need any of that….So I decided to take another path.”

That route soon led her, of course, to the starring role on the popular “Remington Steele” series, which she blesses today for “giving me my solvency” but remembers best for beginning a lasting relationship with her “beloved” hairdresser Dorothy Fox, “who is like a second mother to me.” When the subject series comes up, she interrupts the interviewer before the question is even posed, interjecting: “Just so you know, the last episode on that was in December of 1986, so my memories are dim…I’ve only seen one episode since we finished and that was only because I had to do the voiceover for the DVD….I’ve done a lot of work since then.”

And it’s true. Her list of credits in film, TV and on the stage goes on for pages, and includes appearing opposite Anthony Hopkins in “The Tempest,” as Varya in “The Cherry Orchard” with Alfred Molina, and with her father, who starred on TV’s “FBI” for years, in Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana.” The latter is one of half a dozen shows she’s starred in at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, less than an hour’s drive from her home in Los Angeles.

Given her current situation, Zimbalist isn’t willing to commit to returning to the Ensemble after “Memory” closes on March 11. Nor will she even think about the idea of another TV series, not because she’s loath to return to the format but because, she says, such a gig is nearly out of the question for a non-A-list actor.

“There might have been a time right after Remington Steele I could have entertained the idea, but I didn’t want to go right back into another series,” she says. “And now it’s gone. And there’s no point in barking up a tree you can’t climb.”

“The Memory of Water” runs from February 15 to March 11. It plays Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets cost $25 to $37. For more info call 962-8606.