In the Montana Repertory Theatre’s touring production of The Trip to Bountiful last year, Suzy Hunt commanded the stage in the lead role of Carrie Watts. Watts’ struggle was simple, but complex to convey: a lonely and steadfast woman stuck in the city during the twilight of her life, she wanted only to return home to her rundown ranch on the Gulf Coast of Texas. She yearned to touch the dirt, see the nearby river and soak in the memories once more. Bountiful was home, and Watts, as proper and dignified as she was playful and absentminded, would do anything to get there.
The role was the type Hunt calls “plum.” Born in Butte, the 1976 graduate of the University of Montana’s Drama/Dance Department had a certain basic connection to her character: after spending eight largely successful years acting in New York City and settling as a professional equity actor in Seattle, the self-described Montana girl was always looking for a chance to return home. Bountiful was her fourth touring production with the Montana Rep, and this month she’s begun her fifth in 13 years, playing the lead role of Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.
“When you get to be an older actor and you’re a woman, there are fewer and fewer plum roles. So when you’re offered the chance at Carrie Watts and Grandma Kurnitz, you would be an idiot not to take them,” says Hunt, 61. “Life passes by, it really goes so quickly, so if you’re lucky enough to survive and make it in this business this long, you may not always get the guy or last until the third act, but it is still such a joy.”
Hunt is sipping coffee in the sitting room of the Rattlesnake’s Foxglove Cottage on a rare day off. Dressed in a red turtleneck and jeans, her hair a light golden color interspersed with elegant white, she rattles through stories that span turf from a gym floor in Plains, where the Rep tours to every year, to Broadway. She ticks through the names and responsibilities of every behind-the-scenes company member for the Rep with glowing appreciation in one stretch, and then casually namedrops the famous actors with whom she’s shared the stage in another. Her diction switches seamlessly between a sort of cocktail party formality and a sailor’s harsh tongue, depending on the tale. After a quick hour it’s evident that the same approachable and authentically down-home demeanor that defines Hunt’s most memorable performances transfers directly to her time away from the theater.
“She goes for the heart of the matter all the time,” says Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson, a friend of Hunt’s for more than 25 years. When Hunt first arrived in New York she sublet Johnson’s apartment while he was on tour, and Johnson hand-picked Hunt to return to the Rep for Lend Me a Tenor in 1993. “She knows how to play with the audience and let them in and, like all great actors, there’s a great deal of vulnerability to her work.”
Hunt’s father was in the Army, so the family moved often while she was growing up, including two stints in Germany and her first year of high school in Philipsburg, among other stops. Hunt finally settled in Western Montana when she enrolled at UM, where she immediately immersed herself in theater. Her first experience with the Rep, which was originally created by Firman “Bo” Brown in 1967 as a student company that toured regionally, was as an undergraduate. The annual productions went “everywhere through the state,” Hunt recalls, “from all along the High Line to Poplar to one performance in a prison.” Hunt took her time graduating from UM—she gave birth to her two children during her tenure, as well as taught drama and directed plays and musicals at Sacred Heart Academy—but eventually finished with a plethora of grassroots theater experience.
But it would still be some time before that experience led to Hunt’s biggest break. In 1985 she was cast in playwright Emily Mann’s controversial courtroom drama Execution of Justice. The play ran for nearly a year in Minneapolis before being taken to Broadway’s Virginia Theater. Hunt was given the rare chance to travel with the production, maintaining her role as Cyr Copertini and sharing the stage with a cast of veteran—but still relatively unknown—New York actors including the likes of John Spencer (“The West Wing”), Mary McDonnell (Dances with Wolves), Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) and Wesley Snipes (New Jack City). “Not many actors go to New York with a Broadway play,” Hunt says. “It was a rare thing. At the time, New York didn’t look that hard to me. I was the only one in the cast not paying 10 percent [to an agent], so it was great. I was naïve and green as grass.”
The production didn’t last long in New York, but the experience was invaluable to Hunt. In addition to helping her land an agent and opening the door to other off-Broadway theater roles (including Steel Magnolias and King Lear), commercials and television shows (guest leads in “Kate and Allie” and “Spencer for Hire,” among others), Hunt’s time with Execution of Justice reinforced her passion for acting.
“It was a play with substance, about racism and homophobia and, really, the rise of the conservative wing, and working with Emily and seeing her love of the theater every day, I was able to see how important and vital theater was to me,” Hunt says. “I had to cry every night on stage. And to do it every night and really cry—I mean, I had to do it for a whole damn year—it taught me about how powerful this can be.”
Hunt left New York for Seattle to be closer to family, but maintained her status in the Actors’ Equity Association. She is still a full-time actor, performing in approximately three productions every year with the likes of the Montana Rep, Seattle’s Intiman Theatre and the Seattle Rep. Following the four-month tour of Lost in Yonkers, she’ll star in The Women, a stylish and gossipy all-female production, at Seattle’s ACT Theatre. “I won’t have to wear grandma’s safety shoes, for once,” she says, with equal parts playfulness and seriousness.
As much as she’s looking forward to The Women, Hunt still savors her time with the Rep, calling it her favorite work. Part of it is the chance to travel the country, as it’s one of the few regional companies that still tours. Another plus is her chance to act alongside students, passing along some of her experience after starting in exactly the same spot more than 40 years ago. And, naturally, a large part is her chance to come back and spend time in Missoula, where she still visits with former students from Sacred Heart Academy and can see old friends.
“There are many ways to make a living in the theater,” she says. “Many of us are not stars, are not celebrities, but it is a job…And it all started here, where I still call home.”
The Montana Rep’s Lost in Yonkers will be performed in UM’s Montana Theatre Tuesday, Jan. 23, through Saturday, Jan. 27, at 7:30 PM, with a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. $15/$12 students and seniors.