FOR AN ACTRESS RETURNING to Broadway after 19 years and playing a woman in furious heat, Diana Rigg looked the essence of ladies-who-lunch cool one recent midday at a favorite chic hotel in west London. Sweeping back her auburn hair and ordering a Campari with soda, she gave a bit of advice to any interpreter of an over-the-top character: performance ends with the text.
The drama prompting her return is Euripides' "Medea," with Ms. Rigg, a leading classical actress and television's erstwhile Emma Peel in "The Avengers," as the wife who commits infanticide. Jonathan Kent's acclaimed production began in September 1992 at the Almeida Theater in north London and ultimately won its star the Evening Standard drama award for best actress, the British equivalent of the American Drama Desk prize. A year later, the play moved to the West End for a commercial run that has brought Ms. Rigg an Olivier nomination. (The winners will be announced on April 17.) In New York it opens a limited engagement on Thursday at the Longacre Theater, allowing its producer, Bill Kenwright, another Broadway berth after "Blood Brothers," his long-running musical.
Ms. Rigg, then, has been living for some time with an aggrieved heroine who is both the slaughterer of her own brother and wife to the adulterous Jason (played by Tim Woodward), whom she helps in his quest for the Golden Fleece. But as her composure and casual elegance indicate -- dressed in jeans, blazer and a scarf, she resembles a country aristocrat, not a wronged spouse driven to murder -- this is one performer who leaves her more neurotic roles at the stage door. Indeed, it's hardly surprising that Ms. Rigg's stage credits include two Stephen Sondheim sophisticates, in "Follies" and "Putting It Together," and two Cleopatras, Shakespeare's and John Dryden's. There's a regal air to the actress that makes any talk of life's messy details -- her two divorces, for example -- seem, well, vulgar.
It's dreary to carry this stuff with you," said the 55-year-old performer, seeming less to speak her remarks than to exhale them. "Obviously, I've felt a lot of Medea's emotions but not quite to the same degree. I have nothing to work out; I have no rage. Performance is a matter of developing and enlarging, but it begins and ends with the text."
Still, how do you enact the murder of a child, particularly when you are yourself a mother? (Ms. Rigg's only child, Rachael, is 16.) "The play will answer you; the text tells you. Its psychology is so pure that when Medea reaches that point, there are no alternatives, none." But, Ms. Rigg continued, "if a performer gets trapped into behavioral manifestations of a character, then you find yourself in a corner unable to get out; a balance must be achieved."
The playwright Tom Stoppard, for whom Ms. Rigg appeared in the premieres of "Jumpers" and "Night and Day" in London in the 70's, said the actress "chimed" with his sense of "the theatrical event as a technical problem, a pragmatic affair. Whatever else it has to be, it is also a mechanism. Diana has that, as well as a knowingness about the world, which gives her characterizations tremendous clarity and intelligence."
In light of the actress's stature at home, the surprise is that she is not more widely seen abroad. While she has been the host of public television's "Mystery!" series for the last several years, and won attention for her 1982 droll anthology of savage reviews, "No Turn Unstoned," she has not acted in New York since "The Misanthrope" in 1975. (Her putative Broadway musical debut in "Colette," a 1982 collaboration between Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, "breathed its last," Ms. Rigg recalled, "in Denver.")
IN ADDITION, ALMOST 30 YEARS have passed since she found herself commuting between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Viola in "Twelfth Night" (prior to that, she was Cordelia in Peter Brook's legendary "King Lear") and the television studio where she taped her career-making role as the leather-clad Emma Peel, replacing Honor Blackman, in "The Avengers." "In Soho, there are pictures of me in black leather in very dubious sex shops. The photos are so old, nobody would recognize me now, thank God."
And though contemporaries like Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson have dipped in and out of Oscar-winning roles in the United States and at home, Ms. Rigg's Hollywood career reached a high of sorts with "The Hospital" in 1971. Films since then have included "Theater of Blood" (1973), "A Little Night Music" (1977) and "Evil Under the Sun" (1981). Later this year, she will be seen as the wife of John Lithgow, who plays an English high commissioner in "A Good Man in Africa," with Sean Connery.
"My drive can be switched off," Ms. Rigg said, citing "domestic, domestic, domestic" as a reason for her absences. "I had a long, long period when I had a child, and that was the most important thing." The actress is divorced from Rachael's father, Archibald Stirling, a Scottish businessman and occasional theater producer. A previous marriage to an Israeli, Menahem Gueffen, ended in divorce in 1976. "We'd do a little bargaining: if I did a job, I then promised not to work again. So every time I went to work, she knew there was a period when it would all stop and I'd be back home. I suppose what it really means is I'm quite single-minded."
Now, with Rachael nearing university age, Ms. Rigg said she is looking forward to a renewed period of activity, including a Royal National Theater stint next year in Rodgers and Hart's "Pal Joey." "It's simply to do with an appetite now for really good work in the final third of my life," she added. "The theater to me is home; in some curious way, I don't belong anywhere else."