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Kathleen Turner takes on a new role

The veteran actor makes her stage directing debut with 'Crimes of the Heart'

Kathleen Turner (right) directs actors (from left) Jennifer Dundas, Lily Rabe, and Sarah Paulson in 'Crimes of the Heart.' Kathleen Turner (right) directs actors (from left) Jennifer Dundas, Lily Rabe, and Sarah Paulson in "Crimes of the Heart." (andy tew)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- It's 10:06. This morning's rehearsal for "Crimes of the Heart" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Kathleen Turner's debut as a director, was scheduled to begin at 10, but two actresses haven't shown up yet. It's time for what Turner calls "the foul-up fund," except that her version is less printable.

"If you leave your phone on, if you're late, if you do something stupid, you put money in," the director explains, in the voice that's even throatier than you remember from "Body Heat" or "Romancing the Stone" or her recent tour in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "And then at the end of the run we buy everybody drinks."

She checks the time again, just as actresses Sarah Paulson and Kali Rocha race across the grass toward the basement rehearsal room.

"All right, Stage Manager," Turner tells Adam Grosswirth, "you have to be the bad guy and tell them they owe money." She rolls her eyes and stage-whispers with mock intensity, "I don't want to damage our relationship."

Apologies (and "[foul-up] fund" contribution) accepted, though, Turner shrugs and gets down to business: pointing out some new props for the cast to check out, asking Grosswirth if he has a stopwatch to time the morning's run-through, consulting the actresses about the lemonade they have to prepare and drink in one scene. (This is a Southern play, after all, and playwright Beth Henley calls for plenty of lemonade -- not to mention bourbon -- to wash down the comic and tragic interactions of three sisters and their eccentric kith and kin.) Does the lemon squeezed into the water taste OK, or should she sneak some powdered mix into the pitcher to sweeten it up? And does that mean they'd need an opaque pitcher, not glass?

"What's interesting is the detail that fascinates me as a director," she'd been telling a visitor before the actors arrived. "As an actor, I don't care what color the plates are. I don't care what the cup looks like -- just give me a cup. Or costumes! We had something come in here and I said, 'No, no, that's not right.' I wouldn't care about costumes as an actor." She pauses, with a glint of mischief. "Other people's costumes." And there's that laugh, the one that could make men kill. (Onscreen, anyway.)

Offscreen, Turner both is and isn't what you'd expect. The voice, the laugh, the sense of a confident woman fully inhabiting her own body, are familiar. But she's also funny, self-deprecating, casually dressed, and way more concerned with keeping her cat entertained for the day than you might have guessed.

She's also thoughtful and concise in discussing her new role as a director.

"This is my 30th year in the business, and I've learned a lot," Turner says. She hopes that directing can become part of "a three-pronged career" encompassing acting and teaching, which she does regularly at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

"All my actors here are smart and pretty quick, so I can just say, 'What if . . .' and they can try it," she says. "I don't actually want to show them how to do it. And I'm not here to teach acting. I do teach acting -- I teach a course in practical acting at NYU; it's called 'Shut Up and Do It' -- but that's not my job here."

What, then, is the job of a director?

"My job is to make sure the staging enhances the nuances of the play," Turner says. "A good director helps the actors to find the staging and the use of the space, the right movement for the content of the scene. Of course pace is essential."

The day before, she explains, they'd done a "speed-through," running through the whole play without any of the dramatic pauses that can creep in. "Not because we're going to cut them all out," she says, "but because it helps you discover which ones you can cut. And there are many pauses that you can cut."

Turner says she's also trying to make sure that "the depth and level of emotion" remain properly balanced among the play's three sisters: Paulson's self-centered Meg, Jennifer Dundas's self-sacrificing Lenny, and Lily Rabe's self-dramatizing Babe. That's especially important because "we're dealing with a Southern accent, which lends itself to that kind of melodrama," she says.

It's that kind of emotional intuition that Williamstown artistic director Roger Rees values in Turner's work. "She's a woman with an enormous love of life, and as an actress she sometimes uses that to such intelligent purpose, I knew there was no way she would be anything but wonderful as a director," says Rees, who first met Turner when they costarred in "Indiscretions" on Broadway in 1995. Turner's shift into directing, Rees notes, benefits both her and the festival. "She's learning about acting from a completely different angle," he says, "and really what she wants to do is give back a little to the theater, and this gives her a chance to do that."

Last summer, Turner came to Williamstown to direct a staged reading of "Crimes of the Heart," a play that appealed to her, she says, because "I've always been very attracted to relationships between women. They're much more complex and not as predictable as relationships between men and women."

During a break, Patch Darragh (who plays Doc Porter, the unrequited love of one sister) affirms that Turner's direction is "really focused on the relationships of the characters, rather than the design or the blocking." That's a good thing, he says: "When you have that, all the rest of it comes together. You can go anywhere onstage, because you know who you're with and how you connect to them."

For Turner, the understanding of motivation and connection seems to be built out of a thousand technical details. In fact, she says of acting, "for years I wasn't convinced it was an art form. I thought it was a skill, a craft thing." But she's changed her mind. "To take little marks on a page and turn them into people, into characters you care about -- that's an art form. And it is a partnership" between actor and director, she says, then adds with another laugh: "But the actor's doing it."

And, indeed, on this day she tells the actors that they're going to do a run-through, uninterrupted by her; "I'll give notes at the end of each act, but I'm not going to barge in today," she says. "Can you live without it?"

They smile, but they don't laugh.

"Right. Here we go," Turner says. She readies her pencil and notebook, and the actors go to work.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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