by Michael Bowen
From 1959-61, both The Miracle Worker and Gypsy were running on Broadway. The little girl who starred as Helen Keller in the one show was already known as Patty Duke; now, four decades later, the woman who has become Anna Pearce has the lead role in the other play, Gypsy. And she'll be playing it right here in Spokane.
Back in the early '60s, however, Anna Marie Duke was effectively ripped from her family by a couple of domineering managers, John and Ethel Ross, who stole Anna's independence and even her identity, renaming her Patty.
There's a multilayered irony here: "Patty Duke," who was once pushed around -- and worse - by a couple of complete control freaks, will now tackle the role of Mama Rose, the Mother of All Pushy Stage Mothers from Hell. In her real-life youth, she was the tyrannized child; now she's going to be the onstage tyrant. Will she be drawing on the oppression and abuse of her past?
"I didn't want to, but I've had to," she admits. During rehearsals, she says, "I still go to negative memories, little vignettes of the Rosses. There are some lines in the show -- some of them are others', but some of them are mine -- that are verbatim," she emphasizes.
And Duke -- married to Mike Pearce for 17 years now and currently a North Idaho resident -- has been willing to draw on that past while rehearsing Gypsy. At a recent rehearsal, says director Marilyn Langbehn, "Anna shared her experiences with the Rosses, reconciling what their love looked like with her later experiences of that same emotion. The actors were just like sponges," says Langbehn. "And it was the good work of actors communicating, not just the sharing of stories by some person who's famous, which is not necessarily helpful to the creation of the character. There's a difference."
Duke certainly understands the difference between Rose and a girl like Louise, the daughter whom Mama first overlooks and then exploits. That's because, four decades later, Anna Pearce is still performing for the Rosses: "I want to show them," she says, with intensity, "even though they've passed over to the other side -- that now, with the right kind of support and more skilled teachers, I can do it!"
Louise transforms herself into the phenomenon of Gypsy Rose Lee; by a similar effort of will, Anna changed herself into Patty and then back again.
There's a long tradition of actresses climbing the mountain that is Mama Rose: Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters. Standing 5 feet tall, Duke seems less likely to belt out the role Merman-style than to follow Peters' strategy of the petite woman connecting with the role's vulnerability. But just now, the stage veteran has her mind more on logistical than theoretical matters. She laughs at the forgetfulness that comes with age: "It's interesting -- I've shifted my concern from 'Will I be able to sing that song, to dance that dance?' to 'Will I be able to remember the words?'"
And it can be taxing, this spending three months with a character who's unlikable in so many ways: "There are times," says Duke, "when I'm on stage and my mind wanders, and I think, 'I'm fine, my life is fine.' Why am I putting myself through this?!"
By sheer force of will, Mama Rose rises from a series of defeats in Gypsy to insist that everything nevertheless is coming up -- can't help but be coming up -- roses. With similar effort, Anna wrenched herself away from Patty and became, once again, Anna.
The result of all that effort and the product of all those ironies will hold sway on the Civic's Main Stage from Sept. 20-Nov. 1. If the production succeeds, our memories of the Patty Duke who has become Anna Pearce will stay with us for a long time -- together, wherever we go.
Publication date: 09/11/03