Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections While Reading Call Me Anna

Right now I'm reading Patty Duke's autobiography Call Me Anna. I have had the book for probably ten years and am finally getting around to reading it. Amazingly, I actually saw a copy of it at Barnes and Noble recently, which means that it has likely been in continuous publication since 1987, which is very impressive for an autobiography.

My first encounter with the talent of Patty Duke was in the Nick at Night reruns of her sitcom The Patty Duke Show. We didn’t have cable growing up, but when I’d sleep over at a friend’s house, I’d always sleep on the couch in the living room, where I could stay up late watching great old shows on Nickelodeon. I was never put off by black and white shows because I had grown up loving The Honeymooners, Father Knows Best, and The Andy Griffith Show even though I grew up in the era of 227, The Facts of Life, and Amen.

I guess the appeal of the show was both the spunkiness of Duke’s dual characters—particularly spunky was Patty—and the writing, which was always youthful and clever. I probably laughed more from The Patty Duke Show than I do from anything currently on primetime.

For Broadway audiences, though, she is best known for her work as Helen Keller in William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker and her recreation of that role in the original film version.

In her book, Duke spends much time addressing the issue of her unusual childhood, which, in short, was completely controlled by her monstrous managers John and Ethel Ross; however, the section I have been riveted by is her detailing of her experiences in The Miracle Worker. Because Duke was writing this in the mid-80s, she is giving the adult perspective on her time in the play (and the movie). Part of what is fascinating is that some of those observations are that of the ten-year-old Patty Duke as well as the reflective older Patty Duke. It’s a joy to relive the experience with the older Patty Duke who looks back so lovingly on the entire experience and on the play itself.

She also vividly illustrates what sets apart a child actor from an actor who is young. Duke, even then, had the inherent understanding of what it requires to develop and play a character. Yes, the Rosses did offer some training, but that inner director was guiding her even as a child. There are some kids who are very talented in being able to emote and read a line believably—but then there are those kids who are truly actors, able to create an interpretation and to make creative choices in presenting a character. This innate ability is why Duke has survived in the business for so long, still making movies and appearing in plays for long after her childhood stardom days.

One interesting anecdote in the book is that on opening night out of town, the cast had eighteen curtain calls. On Broadway, there were thirteen. While I’ve never had the chance to see The Miracle Worker onstage (I have read it and taught it), it is a reminder that audiences love to be moved. There are so many masterpieces that move you intellectually, that make you feel something for the characters, but to write something that genuinely moves an audience to such a degree with a measure of mind and heart is a unique gift (and talent). That’s why Les Miserables has run for so long whereas other musicals have since opened and closed—it moves people. Laughter is great. It can earn a record-setting number of Tonys. But laughter fades, while something that is sincere, heartfelt, and truly moving always touches the heart.

One particularly heartfelt moment in Duke’s book is when she reflects back upon her father, a struggling alcoholic who was pretty much run out of her life by her controlling managers. Some years after the run of the play, a woman tells Duke that three or four times a week during the run of The Miracle Worker, her father would use his pittance of money to buy standing room tickets to The Miracle Worker just to be near his daughter, never once going backstage or approaching her.

the Broadway Mouth
November 27, 2007

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