Call Her Eller
Patty Duke comes back to Broadway in Oklahoma! -- and she ain't crawling.
If a common thread can be found within her work, it is of someone trying with all her might to communicate and to connect in one way or another. Duke has been a pioneer in bringing attention and compassion to the plight of people with manic depression, an illness she herself has battled and triumphed over. It seems only fitting that her return to Broadway should be as a strong pioneer woman: Aunt Eller in the Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!.
TheaterMania spoke with Anna Pearce, a.k.a. Patty Duke, the week before her official Broadway homecoming on December 14.
THEATERMANIA: I have to start by asking how many people lately have been quoting to you the Susan Hayward line from Valley of the Dolls that was directed to your character, Neely O'Hara: "They drummed you right out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway?"
PATTY DUKE: [laughing heartily] You're the first. You are! It's just because, when people meet me, I don't look like I used to and they don't know if they should say things like that to such an old lady.
TM: You're not old.
PATTY: No, I'm not, really. Not in heart. Or in spirit.
TM: You've said that you're a person who puts a great deal of stock in symbols. Is that why you opened in Oklahoma! on your birthday? Was it a symbolic rebirth?
PATTY: Well, I'd like to say it was a coincidence, but I sort of engineered it. I thought "Hey, I've had just about everything a person could get for her birthday but this: a Broadway opening!"
TM: Is it surreal being back in New York and preparing to go into a Broadway show after all you've been through since you were last seen here in The Miracle Worker?
PATTY: You know, "surreal" is the perfect word for it. I'll be walking down the street and say "That's where I told my mother 'Oh my God, it's Wednesday!'" and then ran off to the theater because I was late for a matinee. You know, there'll be a totally different building there. It's as if my senses are seriously heightened right now. Everything is either a sentimental symbol to me or has a good memory or a terrible memory. In some ways, though [the Oklahoma! people] don't know it, they're paying me to go through therapy again.
TM: How do you feel about the fact that The Miracle Worker is scheduled to be revived on Broadway during the period when you yourself have come back?
PATTY: I think, in a way, it's a very appropriate coincidence. I am thrilled, as a Helen Keller/Annie Sullivan fan, that the story is being told again and will receive the great attention it deserves again. I so love actors. Hilary Swank will only get the warmest support from me.
TM: I hope some of your friends and colleagues from over the years come to see you in Oklahoma!
PATTY: I hope so, too, but nobody can tell me! I cannot know who is in the audience; I get really freaked out. I was doing a play in Beverly Hills in this tiny, tiny theater and I had told everyone, "Please don't tell me who's in the house." And a man comes down the stairs and says, "You'll never guess who's in the audience!" It was Anne Bancroft!
TM: Okay, now your words are going to come back to haunt you. In Call Me Anna, when you mentioned doing the remake of The Miracle Worker for television [in which Duke played Annie Sullivan], you said: "The house they used was a yellow gingerbread and it looked wrong, like something from Oklahoma!"
PATTY: [laughing] You are unbelievable! Oh, that's hysterical!
TM: What is it about the show that drew you to it at this time?
PATTY: It answered so many immediate needs of mine and the longtime dream I've had, since I played Helen Keller, of being in a Broadway musical. What I actually said, when I was a kid, was: "I'm gonna be in a Broadway musical before I die." I've been very lucky in that certain projects came to me at different times in my life when there was a resonance. I want to try things that are unlike me, but in order to play any character, I have to find something about that character I can identify with.
TM: What about Aunt Eller spoke to you?
PATTY: Eller, I am finding, is a complex woman. She's been a surrogate single mother to that girl and she's Mother Courage to the rest of the town, in her way. There's one line, I'm sure you remember it, and it comes toward the end when she's talking to Laurey about things happening to people -- "sickness and being poor and even being old and a'feared of dying." For something completely subjective to pull out of the text and identify with, that certainly resonated with me. But the good news: What also resonates with me is her concept that you've gotta be tough or you don't deserve the tender and sweet times in life.
TM: Another thing that's happening at the same time as your return to Broadway is that the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is opening -- and an actor named Sean Astin [Ms. Duke's son with actor John Astin] is in the cast.
PATTY: Of course, the star of it -- as far as I am concerned -- is Samwise Gamgee! Sean and the family were here for the premiere, so I got to see my granddaughters.
TM: If you could pick one adjective to describe yourself, what would it be?
TM: Do you hope Oklahoma! will be just the first page of a new chapter of your getting to work in New York and to originate roles on Broadway?
PATTY: From your lips to God's ears!
TM: Do you have any performance rituals?
PATTY: [laughing] I always wear my husband's dogtags in my brassiere. It's weird!
TM: In your book, you say: "Most of all, I connect with that desire to enlighten and to be enlightened before you die so you leave something behind."
PATTY: I said it and I meant it. And the quest goes on. "Quest" sounds as if it's almost unrequited, but I don't mean it that way. It is the constant recognition and renewal of trust that the love is there. That, and not giving up.