That's Lily's Truth

Lily Tomlin, actress, comedienne, and the mouth that launched a million monologues in the 1980s, is coming back for more. In her solo piece, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the actress famously allowed a dozen or so characters to inhabit her body, including Agnus Angst, the fifteen-year-old punk whose hero is G. Gordon Liddy; Lud and Marie, a retired couple (and the grandparents of Agnus Angst); and Trudy the Bag Lady, who acts as a tour guide for visiting space aliens. This year, those characters -- along with other well-known Tomlin personas such as Edith Ann -- are back onstage with Tomlin, who allows us to watch them navigate new experiences.

"We're evolving the whole time-travel aspect of Search," says Tomlin, who spoke from Los Angeles a few days before setting off on a 29-city tour with a modified version of her famous stage show, which won the New York Drama Desk Award, and a 1986 best actress Tony for Tomlin, when it debuted thirteen years ago. The actress sees the tour as an opportunity to fine-tune the work, something she's been doing, along with writer-collaborator Jane Wagner, from the onset. This time, however, the Tomlin universe seems to be expanding at a faster rate. "There's an evolution for the characters," Tomlin says. "Trudy [the Bag Lady] is still the tour guide through humanity. But her equipment has been updated, her hardware, and as a result, her 'wit-ware.' She'll be commenting on the culture in general and on the characters as they travel through the future."

In addition the tour is a chance to introduce the characters to new audiences. "There's a generation that hasn't laid eyes on it," says Tomlin. The impetus to go on the road again came out of workshops Tomlin and Wagner had been holding for students and faculty at the University of Southern California. "They were so responsive to The Search; young women who had no knowledge of consciousness-raising [of the 1970s] were particularly taken with the feminist piece," in which a group of women discuss, among other things, the politics of body hair, therapy, and Birkenstock sandals. Besides, she says, in the decade and a half since she and Wagner first launched Search, "I'm sure I've evolved somewhat. The time has evolved and the culture has evolved. It gives [the show] a whole new resonance."

Tomlin, who released a film of the performance piece in 1991, says she never tires of the material. (Her reputation as a perfectionist is cemented by the 1987 documentary Lily Tomlin: The Film Behind the Show, which revealed some of the rigorous refining of material that she and Wagner went through before the show got to Broadway.) Nor does she think of it as a work in progress that's affected by current events: "I don't think it needs updating. I see it as a play that's still moving and rich," she offers. Still the performance grows and changes each time she does it. "We work on it and our perceptions change," she says. "Each time I do it, I see something else in it."

Traveling across the country also gives Tomlin a chance to interact with live audiences, something she hasn't done much of recently. "I haven't worked like this in a long time." she allows. "I haven't been around to a lot of cities in years." Earlier this year she appeared in Franco Zeffirelli's feature film Tea with Mussolini, and she played Candice Bergen's maniacal boss in the last two seasons of Murphy Brown. ("I tried to rent my dressing room as a condo after the show was over," she says, noting that its central Burbank location was especially attractive to her.) She's also the Emmy-winning voice of Mrs. Frizzle, the nonplused bus driver/science teacher on the PBS kids' hit The Magic School Bus, and is "supposed to be" developing a sitcom project for CBS.

In her hiatus from live performance, some of her characters have taken on lives of their own. "If you do comedy and characters that are sustained, then the audience is familial," Tomlin explains. "When I think back over the years -- I could start with Ernestine [the obsequious telephone operator who became popular in the early 1970s on the TV showcase Laugh-In]. I always think she was like Bette Davis. So many people imitated her that she seemed like a much bigger person than I could ever be."