Stage & Dance

Actress revels in age-appropriate role in Studio Players' 'The Graduate'

Mrs. Robinson as played by Allie Darden, during rehearsal for  Studio Players production of The Graduate in Lexington, Ky.  on Monday May 14, 2012.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Mrs. Robinson as played by Allie Darden, during rehearsal for Studio Players production of The Graduate in Lexington, Ky. on Monday May 14, 2012. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

A lot of actresses work hard to conceal their ages, but not Allie Darden.

"I'm 42," she says, then she leans into a reporter's microphone and adds, "I'm not embarrassed to admit that.

"I love getting older. I tell my friends who are in their 20s and say, 'I don't want to turn 30.' It's the best thing ever. It's the best thing for your life, and the parts get better."

Now is a pretty great time for Darden, who is playing the 20th century's iconic cougar, Mrs. Robinson, in Studio Players' production of The Graduate, which opened Thursday. The 1967 Mike Nichols film came out as the sexual revolution was getting into full swing. It is the story of a recent college graduate, Benjamin Braddock, who is seduced by one of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson, and then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine.

One of the head-turning facts about the movie is that Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs. Robinson, was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman, who was Ben, and less than nine years older than Katharine Ross, who played Elaine.

"Anne Bancroft is stunningly beautiful, but she just seemed ... maybe it was just her voice, she just seemed like she was my age and he was 18," Darden says. "He was such a baby and she was such a woman," so it didn't seem that there were just a few years between them.

Studio Players' Ben, Alex Maddox, is 23, and Elaine, Ellen Jenkins, is 20.

"This is more realistic," Darden says. "I could be a mother to Elaine."

When Darden was Elaine's age, she was just getting into acting. She started as a musician and dancer, fronting bands and singing in show choirs and choruses. Before attending Eastern Kentucky University, the Henry Clay High School graduate worked in Orlando, Fla., as a travel agent at Disney World while performing at theaters and singing on a cruise ship.

"Those opportunities don't come around when you're working all the time, so I took a little advantage of that and had a great support system, and my mom was wonderful and said go do it now," Darden says. "I called myself the wedding singer and the bar mitzvah singer and bat mitzvah singer, and I got lots and lots of experience."

When she got back to Kentucky and EKU, she continued pursuing music and took some acting classes to round out her abilities. That's when the bug bit. She went headlong into theater and even changed her major.

"I played the show girl, the slut, the ingenue — that's just who I played," Darden says.

Her appetite for deep, dark, adult roles was whetted by playing Marjorie, who turns the tables on a man who invades her home and attempts to rape her, in Extremities.

"It was the first role that I played that I wasn't the shiny, happy girl," Darden says. "I loved it and I wanted more of those."

In 2007, she scored a big coup, landing the role of Nurse Ratched in Studio's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, giving a performance that Herald-Leader critic Candace Chaney described as "a cruel tyrant, a kind of psychological sadist who reigns over the institution with a spooky smile and collected demeanor."

"It's not just because they're iconic, because that doesn't matter," Darden says. "It's just those good, dark roles. ... Whether they're villains or not, I love to play strong women."

And she doesn't necessarily see Mrs. Robinson as a villain.

"She was a little more challenging than people would believe because there's so much inside of her that's underneath, and all anybody knows about her is Mrs. Robinson the sex symbol, the sexy lady that seduces the young guy. That's just one aspect of her."

Working on the part, Darden says, she has come to recognize that Mrs. Robinson is a woman whose life didn't go as planned. She lives an upper middle-class lifestyle in Southern California, but she is stuck in a loveless marriage, primarily because she got pregnant in college, and the social norm of the day called for her to marry the father of the child.

"I feel compassion for her," Darden says. "I can't imagine being in a loveless marriage that you can't get out of because she quit college to have her baby. I'm not saying things are perfect now, but there are more opportunities to have a fulfilling life now than what my character had."

The stage version of the show provides more scenes than the movie, including an exchange between Mrs. Robinson and Elaine that is harsh but revealing.

In the Studio production, Darden is directed by her husband, Bob Singleton.

Any time a theater stages an adaptation of an iconic film, there is a balancing act: how much to reflect the film and how much to divert from it. With her blonde hair and bubbly demeanor, Darden is not a Bancroft type, but she and Singleton say that helps pull the show away from the movie. But Darden acknowledges she loves getting to have some of those lines that film fans know by heart, such as, "Do you want me to seduce you?"

And she loves being the right age to get roles like Mrs. Robinson.

"I'm still getting cast, and they're not picking plays for me," Darden says. "The stereotype that once you get a little older, the roles don't come, that may be true for some of my friends who are in their 70s. I think there are less roles for that age. But the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, it's not a scary thing. It's a good thing."

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