Peg Murray-An East End Treasure

Written By: Barbara Anne  Kirshner

PEG MURRAY-AN EAST END TREASURE BY BARBARA ANNE KIRSHNER Her eyes scanned the dark, cavernous theatre and settled on the shadows perched in the last row. With a sweeping gesture she commanded, “Pick up a script and turn to page 32.” I looked to my right, then to my left and back to her. I pointed to myself and asked in a half whisper,” Me?” A trace of anxiety slipped into her rich, theatrical voice as she implored, “Yes, dear, you.” “Oh, no, I’m sorry. I’m here with a friend. I’m not auditioning.” She shrugged at my response and brushed it off with a surprised, “Oh, all right.” She went about calling others forward. The procession of actors and actresses mounting the stage and projecting their best continued until her gaze fell on me again and she commanded, “Will you please take a script and come up here, my dear.” There was no refusing her this time, so I made my way toward the stage, accepted a script and climbed the six steps that led to center stage where another actor was waiting to read with me. “Page 32. Ebenezer Scrooge and Christmas Past,” she directed and with an expansive sweep of her hand, signaled us to begin. I immediately found my footing. I was transported back to Victorian times and entered the body of the mischievous seductress that was Christmas Past as she conjured fear into the very soul of Ebenezer Scrooge. It was one of the smoothest auditions I had ever given to date, maybe because the stakes weren’t high for me. After all, I wasn’t there to get a part so the usual nerves and fears that come when the part is everything to me didn’t have a chance to build. After completing the scene, I made my way back down those six steps and was met with her comment, “I don’t know why you hesitated. That was a good reading.” “Thank you,” I said, and then explained, “It’s just that I’m closing in a show next week and with the holidays coming, I thought I’d take a break.” “Well, do as you like, “she bluntly replied, then she locked eyes with me and disclosed, “But if you want it, I’ll give you the role.” That was the beginning of my professional relationship with the Tony Award winning actress, Peg Murray, who became my coach, my mentor and my friend for a while. And so I got cast in Peg’s adaptation of Christmas Carole at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. This was early on, 1982, in what has become a tradition at that theatre and way before the reign of Jeff Sanzel who has owned Scrooge and Christmas Carole for over two decades now. The production schedule was grueling with a number of matinees in addition to the evening performances, but oh, so worth it. With Peg at the helm, her actors were introduced to an amazing theatrical experience. She held a public relations soirée after our opening night performance. Our audience consisted of some major theatrical forces including actor, Joel Gray, and dramatist, Ellen Violet, who adapted the Dorothy Parker short story, “Big Blonde” for film. Joel Gray and Peg were good friends and appeared together on Broadway in Cabaret. Peg won a Tony Award for her role as Fraulein Kost in the original Broadway musical directed by Hal Prince. Of course, we all know that Joel Gray played the Master of Ceremonies for which he won the Tony, the Academy Award and the Golden Globe. After our opening performance, we actors got to meet these power houses. I was completely taken aback when Joel Gray approached me, took my hand and said, “I really enjoyed your performance.” All I could muster was a smile and a,”Thank you.” Soon I returned to the comfortable haven that was our dressing room. I sat with my head propped up in my hands and just stared out at nothing. One of my fellow actresses asked, “Is something wrong?” “It’s overwhelming; just being in the same room with people who have made it. It feels like a dream, being in the presence of a professional writer and an actual Academy Award winner. And you know, they were very nice people.” What I didn’t realize then was that Peg Murray would be a part of my life for a time. We kept in touch after the run of Christmas Carol. Then she invited me to take on the role of Olivia in her production of “Twelfth Night” for the Greenport Summer Players. In honor of Suffolk County’s 300th birthday, Peg altered the time period from Elizabethan to 1683 and the setting was transformed to Southold Town. Our theatre was the historic Holy Trinity Church on Main Street in Greenport complete with towering steeple and gothic windows, it owned early American roots. This perfect venue helped propel Peg’s interpretation. Additionally, she changed the Shakespearean names to colonial sounding names. My character, Olivia, became Abigail and so on through the cast of characters. Yes, Peg actually re-wrote Shakespeare and the reviews applauded her efforts! My trip out to Greenport for rehearsals and the run of the show was quite a long one since I was coming from Babylon, so Peg was very kind and opened her house in Southold letting me freshen up before the show. I was teaching summer school so on performance nights, I packed my stage make-up and after a day of teaching, headed out east. The first time I went to her Southold house, I didn’t know where I was going. It wasn’t an easy house to find as it hid behind tall trees and brush. I pulled into a circular gravel driveway and there stood a proud Cape Cod style house with a large clapboard deck and some strategically placed rocking chairs. I could imagine Peg, a mint julep at her side, nestled in one of the rockers leafing through yet another script. I unlocked the front door and was immediately met by the scent of cedar wafting from the wooden ceiling and paneled walls. A giant staircase that led to a loft area claimed the center of an expansive living room. To the left was a guest room where I was able to change out of my school clothes and down the hall was the bathroom. The shower felt so good after a long day of school and that endless drive in the summer heat. As I dried myself, I looked at all the pretty pictures on the walls, and then my eyes fell on what appeared to be a framed letter. At closer inspection, I couldn’t believe my eyes. In scroll-like handwriting was the signature of Tennessee Williams. Peg knew him and often quoted him by saying, “Tennessee said this or Tennessee said that.” But to see an authentic letter addressed to Peg with the signature of Tennessee Williams at the bottom took my breath away. As an English teacher and an actress, the sight overwhelmed me. Tennessee Williams is America’s quintessential playwright having written masterpieces that have become some of our most admired classics- “Streetcar Named Desire”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and here was a letter to Peg Murray from Tennessee Williams himself! “Oh, my goodness, it’s awe-inspiring!”-to quote one of the most compelling Williams characters, Blanche Dubois. I learned much from Peg as she directed me that summer. Her advice on auditioning: “Look vertically not horizontally. It’s you and the director. Forget about all the others auditioning for the same role.” Peg’s directive for an actor’s first entrance in any show- ATTACH! It doesn’t matter if you are sitting when the lights come up on you for the first time. You still ATTACK. Make your first words definite and your presence strong. After our turn at Shakespeare, Peg became a regular on “All My Children” for a while. I became a regular teacher and theatre became my avocation. I needed to support myself, besides I didn’t feel productive filling my days with endless cattle calls. For all of her theatrical credits, Peg was a down-to-earth and caring person. She knew how hard it was for me to do the show out in Greenport and she acknowledged it in a letter to me. After one paragraph in which she very kindly complimented my performance as Olivia (Abigail), she went on in the next paragraph to say: And only another actress as I am can appreciate what it means to drive long miles, work long hours, slave in 90 degrees etc…but, darling, your audiences would never guess any of that. It’s lovely-and I hope we work together again-Soon. Love, Peg We never did work together again, but I cherish the memories of all that Peg brought to me. I