Ghostly images from plays of yore peer out from the dark glass walls of the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Suddenly, one seems to flicker to life: It’s Laila Robins, head tilted ecstatically in 1999’s “Summer and Smoke.”
The real-life Robins, back in town to star in her first Guthrie show in 13 years, stood in front of that spectral tableau on a recent morning, shifting this way and that, while a photographer worked to get the angle just right.
“This is the theater that I dreamed of as a child,” she said.
Friday’s opening of “The Lion in Winter” represents a poignant homecoming for Robins, who grew up in St. Paul before going on to a career on the New York stage and TV. In the early 2000s, she headlined several shows at the Guthrie, playing Hedda Gabler, the queen in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and a TV director charged with filming a live crucifixion in the 2002 world premiere of Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues.”
She returns as a queen — Eleanor of Aquitaine — in James Goldman’s play about conflicts swirling around the 12th-century court of England’s Henry II. Eleanor is one of the gravitational poles in the 1966 drama, best remembered as a movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Robins brings her chiseled features to the Hepburn role opposite Kevyn Morrow, fresh from Broadway’s “The Color Purple,” as the king.
“It’s still one of the best theaters in the country,” she said of the Guthrie. “I get to work here, and to spend some precious time with my mother, who’s 86.”
She’s a force
Both onstage and screen, Robins has played powerful, tensile figures. She is perhaps best known for depicting the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan for a season on Showtime’s “Homeland.” But she made her TV breakthrough playing a hotshot attorney in “Gabriel’s Fire,” opposite James Earl Jones.
Her stage career has been similarly studded, with a Broadway debut in 1984 opposite Jeremy Irons in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” Robins replaced Glenn Close, to whom she is often compared. She essayed Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre in 1997.
She also has had a lucrative career as a voice-over artist. She’s been a pitchwoman for Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume White Diamonds, Pantene shampoo and Degree antiperspirant.
“Laila has a voice that makes you want to go where she tells you,” said director David Esbjornson, who worked with Robins in shows at the Guthrie, in New York and elsewhere.
He directed her in “Summer and Smoke,” the Tennessee Williams drama in which she played a minister’s daughter chafing under conventional expectations. “She is keenly intelligent, and her craft is impeccably strong. Laila’s got huge emotional reserves and is capable of blending that with great control and skill. She has remarkable control of her instrument.”
Esbjornson pointed to his 2012 revival of Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque,” headlined by Jane Alexander, with Robins playing a terminally ill character. The New York Times called Robins “harrowingly convincing.” The performance won her a Drama Desk Award nomination and an Actors’ Equity prize.
The playwright gave Esbjornson a statement to read at the award presentation. “There are a number of extraordinary actresses that can give you a great experience with a play,” Albee said. “But there are only a handful that can make you think differently about a play. Laila is one of those.”
Robins now brings that skill to bear on Eleanor, the wife of two kings and the mother of several more.
“She was a powerful woman who was queen of England and France, who led armies into battle and now is dealing with politics,” said Robins. “But underneath all that stuff, this is really a love story. She and Henry have great affection and respect for each other.”
One person who will be in the crowd Friday — and likely many more nights — is the actor’s Latvian-born mother, Brigita Robins. She saw “Hedda Gabler” 26 times and “Antony and Cleopatra” 13 times, Robins said. “She’s a glutton for punishment.”
Robins got her love of the stage from her mother. “She would be happy with a ghost light and a rippling curtain in an empty theater,” Robins said.
Her parents met in American-run refugee camps in Germany following World War II. The family moved to the United States, where her father, Janis, picked broccoli as a migrant worker in Washington before earning a college degree and becoming a chemist. He was hired by 3M, and the family settled in the Twin Cities. He died in December 2013.
‘A Latvian peasant girl’
Savoring her days off with family, Robins intends to go bowling at Bryant-Lake Bowl on Christmas Day and visit childhood haunts. She also intends to spend time at the cemetery where her father and a brother who died in childhood are buried, and at the Latvian church in south Minneapolis where she sang and acted.
“People think that I’m some English lady, but I’m a Latvian peasant girl,” she said, laughing. “Ha, ha! I fooled them.”
She paused to reflect on the recent election. Eleanor, she said, is like a lot of women trying to break barriers historically controlled by men. She was a Middle Ages pioneer, owning land as a woman.
Robins was asked to play Eleanor on the East Coast about five years ago, but declined. “I was intimidated by her,” she said. But now, with some more life experience, she feels ready.
“I know it might sound woo-woo, but every role offers something for me to learn,” she said. “I don’t know what the lesson is, but once I start to live it, it will become evident.”