TheaterMania Logo

The Waltons' Michael Learned Goes With the Flow of The Outgoing Tide

The Emmy Award-winning actress tackles the tricky topic of Alzheimer's in her new play. logo
Richard Thomas and Michael Learned
(© David Gordon)
"As an actor, one of my greatest fears is losing my memory," says Michael Learned. So it's not surprising the popular actress found relevance in the role of Peg, the wife of a man who is losing his memory, in Bruce Graham's critically acclaimed play The Outgoing Tide at 59E59 Theaters.

Nonetheless, Learned -- who first gained nationwide fame and earned three Emmy Awards as Olivia Walton on CBS' popular family drama, The Waltons -- admits that the issue is not the easiest one for audiences to deal with. "If you tell people that this is a play about Alzheimer's, they may stay away in droves," she says. "So I prefer to say this is a play about a family in crisis, which is true. It's about a very stressful time in all their lives, including their son [played by Ian Lithgow]. The disease has progressed, and they're all at their wit's ends because they disagree about what to do."

While the play sounds like a complete downer, Learned says nothing could be further from the truth. "What's so amazing about the play is that Bruce somehow managed to make this terrible disease funny," she says. "When I first read the script, I found myself laughing and then weeping. And then I thought ‘I just have to do it,' so I said ‘yes' immediately."

Learned was relieved to find that audiences shared her reaction to the script when this production premiered last month at the Delaware Theatre Company. "During our first night of previews, I thought to myself, ‘this show isn't a tragedy, it's a comedy,'" she says. "But what surprises me is that the older audiences are the ones who seem to be laughing the most. I'm not sure if it's from being nervous or if it's a form of release or if it's a little bit of everything."

She credits much of the production's success to her co-star, Peter Strauss, who plays her struggling husband. "I had never met him before, and while I knew his television work (Rich Man, Poor Man), I didn't realize he was such a great stage actor (Einstein and the Polar Bear)," she says. "But he just owns this part -- he fully inhabits it. It's a very demanding role and he brings about 40 different colors to it."

Learned, who lives in Los Angeles, is particularly thrilled to be performing in New York during the holiday season. "When I was a girl, my grandmother would take me during the holidays to see the windows at Saks and Rockefeller Center," she says. "My heart is really here. I always say Los Angeles is really just a nice place to visit, but New York is the nicest place to live. You can order in food and the doormen are the kindest people. I think this city is full of angels."

Being here also allows her to see many of her friends, including her former television son, John-Boy Walton himself, Richard Thomas (who recently starred in Broadway's An Enemy of the People). "I love Richard. In fact, all of us from The Waltons still love each other. I think we're closer than some real families."

Most of all, though, Learned is thrilled to simply have a string of jobs to keep her busy. Indeed, after this production closes, she will be doing a production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Driving Miss Daisy in Jacksonville, Florida and then Edmonton, Canada.

"I had five months of not working recently, and it almost drove me crazy. When this play came up, my husband said, ‘take it before you become suicidal or homicidal,'" she recalls. "I got married at 17, had three kids by the time I was 24, and have never had much time alone. I never had time to develop hobbies. Now, if I have nothing to do, I just find myself cleaning drawers incessantly."