I first met Alden West in January when I was helping direct Taking Care of Mimi, a provocative play being produced as a staged reading by the Script to Stage to Screen (S2S2S) theater. West was playing a lead role as a matriarch with dementia whose death leads to a murder investigation—and I couldn’t believe it when West revealed she was 87 years old.
“Eight-seven and a half!” she proudly proclaims.
West, a resident of Sun City in Palm Desert since 2003, was an only child, born in Washington, D.C.
“I figure I can claim any state,” she says with a laugh, “and I was raised all over the country: West Virginia, Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore, Richmond and New York City. I went to so many different schools, each with its own teaching styles, that when I moved from Buffalo to Baltimore, I found that they had learned script writing in the first-grade, while I hadn’t. I had a little yellow desk at home, and many tears were shed at that desk!
“It was a challenge going to schools in big cities and then in rural areas. I came from Jackson Heights in New York City, where if you bumped into somebody, you’d never say you were sorry. In rural areas, if you bumped into somebody, they’d say they were sorry—they were very polite.”
West’s father worked at Chevrolet, which moved him around a lot; he also served in the Navy during World War II.
“My mom had married early, at age 18, and was a homemaker until the war, when she went to work,” West says. “I was very close to my mother, even when I was a teenager, and I could tell my dad anything. I not only loved my parents; I liked them.
“My dad was a college graduate, and after I graduated high school in Virginia, where we had lived since I was about 11 or 12, I went to Cornell, where both my dad and granddad had gone. I didn’t stay at college, however, because I had promised to marry my first husband, so I left school at Christmas of my sophomore year. If I had stayed in school, I would have majored in theater arts, but I left too soon to declare a major.”
West proudly proclaims that she had three grandparents in Congress.
“My father’s father was a Republican; my mother’s father was a Democrat. Then when my mother’s father passed away, his wife filled out his term. She had to run for it and was elected.”
West’s jobs over the years included retail; she also worked as assistant in a dental office. In 1980, she studied for and got her real estate license. She sold real estate until she moved to Sun City from Hillsborough, Calif.
West started acting in high school, in Falls Church, Va.
“There was a local community theater, and a friend suggested I audition,” West says. “I got a part and was cast as an Eskimo girl, in a full Eskimo costume, doing a hula. I loved it! I did a little acting before I had my children, and I still remember getting my first stage kiss.
“In college, I got the lead part in my freshman year in The Importance of Being Earnest, and in my sophomore year, in The Madwoman of Chaillot. In that one, I actually had to learn how to whistle! I had always been a little shy; I’d cross the street to avoid someone I didn’t know well. What I found was that when I’m onstage, I’m the character.”
West didn’t start acting in earnest until she came to the desert.
“There was a Panhellenic group meeting I attended, and at the end, they announced an audition was being held for some work at local venues,” West says. “They gave me a part, and that gave me confidence. Then Ron Celona (artistic director of Coachella Valley Repertory) cast me in Driving Miss Daisy. I got a nomination from the Desert Theatre League for that part.
“After that,” she laughs, “I tried out for all the old-lady parts!”
West has subsequently earned more nominations and several wins from the Desert Theatre League—including the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“When I went up to get the lifetime award, I said, ‘I feel like this is the gold watch,’ but then I thought, ‘You people probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.’” Again, she laughs heartily.
West never formally studied acting, although she has taken some courses locally. She says she can’t do “method acting,” in which an actor digs into personal experience to present a realism-based performance. “I try to think of what is written and who that character is. I try to figure out how that character would deal with the situation being portrayed.
“Truth is, it’s getting more difficult to memorize lines. Sometimes, there’s a word I just can’t get, and I have to substitute one. Lately, I’m noticing that I can only be friends with someone who can complete my sentences,” she says, again with a laugh. “I always have to respond to what’s written and what’s happening onstage in that moment.”
Respond, she does. In the show I helped direct with Script to Stage to Screen, West portrayed an aging woman whose family is at odds about her condition. West’s ability to become that woman and respond to what was happening around her, even when she had no dialogue, was astounding.
West has three children—two daughters and a son. Her second marriage began in 1960 and lasted until her husband died in 2011.
“I’m lucky to have two of my children living fairly close, and the third has a place in Mexico, so it’s a great place for a getaway,” she says.
Does West have a guilty pleasure? “Sweets,” she answers immediately. “My kids tell me I’m indecisive, but I’ll take a cookie over a drink any day.”
How has the current stay-at-home policy affected West? “Being an only child, I’ve had no problem at all,” she says. “I walk every day and do my cardio exercises. I’m used to being alone. I even prefer it sometimes. I’ve learned to adapt to whatever is going on.”
That is a reaction worth emulating.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.