Even if you're Dana Delany, star of hit TV shows such as "China Beach" and "Desperate Housewives," sometimes you land a role by default.
She recently got the call that an actress had to drop out of the cast of the American Repertory Theater's upcoming production of "The Night of the Iguana." Was Delany interested in the role?
"I made my decision and I was on a plane the very next day," she says, chatting on the phone during a rehearsal break in Cambridge.
One big reason she jumped at the opportunity: James Earl Jones. He anchors this production, which runs Feb. 18 to March 18 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge. But, really, it was the entire cast that got her attention: Elizabeth Ashley, Bill Heck, Amanda Plummer and others.
"With this cast," says Delany, "who wouldn't want to do this play?"
Emotions also played a part in Delany's decision.
"I like to do things that scare me," says the actress, who knows all about the no-net tightrope act that is live theater. "And this scares me."
Her final reason for saying "yes"? Her appreciation for a man she's never met: Tennessee Williams.
"I've never performed in a play by Tennessee Williams," says the actress, whose stage credits include "Translations" and "Dinner With Friends." "I always wanted to, so when this opportunity came up, I was thrilled."
"Night of the Iguana" occupies a unique place in the Williams canon. People recognize the title, but the play is rarely produced. Williams wrote it in 1961, long after the hit parade of "The Glass Menagerie" (1944), "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947) and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955). Soon after writing "Night of the Iguana," Williams lost his fastball, his creativity dulled by alcohol and bouts of depression. "Iguana" would be the last play of distinction that he ever wrote.
"It feels like a play about your twilight years," says Delany. "It has this undercurrent of sadness and loss. And it's written with the poetry of an older person. It's more spare than some of Williams' earlier works."
Williams set the play in the 1940s, in a cheap hotel on the edge of a Mexican jungle, a point of intersection for an unlikely assortment of strangers. Shannon (Heck) is a tour guide and former minister, caught in a sexual scandal. Guests also include the artist Hannah (Plummer) and her grandfather (Jones). Delany plays Maxine, the hotel manager. Attracted to Shannon, she's kind of a classic Tennessee Williams female.
"Both Hannah and Maxine are Tennessee Williams archetypes," says Delany, "but I also think they're more mature than some of his other females."
Delany believes that, in the end, "Iguana" is about forgiveness.
"As you get older," she says, "you realize you really need to forgive and accept."
There wasn't much forgiving or accepting on the set of "Desperate Housewives," if you believed the gossip magazines of the day. But Delany says she never saw any of that during her tenure. She was a later addition to the cast, joining in 2007, and she says that, by then, the on-set drama had subsided.
It wasn't her first featured role on a hit TV show. She burst onto the scene in 1988, playing a Vietnam War nurse in the acclaimed and beloved series, "China Beach." It's hard to believe now, but at the time, ABC balked at the choice of Delany in the starring role: The studio thought she wasn't pretty enough.
"Yup, that's true," says Delany, and then she laughs. And she who laughs last, laughs the hardest: Three years after ABC's odd assessment of Delany, People magazine declared the actress to be one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world.
Delany has forged a formidable career, unbowed by an industry that infamously rewards youth, especially in women. In addition to "China Beach" and "Desperate Housewives," Delany, a two-time Emmy-winner, performed in the ABC drama "Body of Proof" and a long list of films, including "Housesitter."
"I just keep going," she says.
Delany, 60, isn't done learning. That's why she pays so much attention to James Earl Jones during the "Iguana" rehearsals.
"He's just so present and committed," she says. "An actor of his stature, and he never stops working at it. You can tell he still loves it."
With a cast that includes Jones, Ashley, Delany and others, this sure looks like a production that's Broadway-bound.
Delany recognizes that the cast has a Broadway pedigree, but she's not getting ahead of herself.
"With this caliber of cast, you would wonder about [a Broadway run]," she admits. "But we're just taking this one step at a time."
And forget Broadway for now; she's happy to be back on Brattle Street. Raised in Connecticut, she still considers herself a New Englander.
"These are my people!" she declares with a laugh.
She has fond memories of her time at Phillips Academy in Andover, where she remembers sneaking off campus with friends to come to Boston and Cambridge for culture and fun.
She currently splits her time between New York and Los Angeles.
"But as I get older, I find myself spending more and more time in New York," she says. "I just think it's more interesting than Los Angeles now. I keep thinking I'll end up being one of those cranky old ladies you see on the streets of New York. I love those ladies."