From Keller to Eller

From Keller to Eller You can take the girl out of the city, but can you take the city out of the girl?

Patty Duke would argue an emphatic Yes! — and then fling herself forth as the perfect case in point.

Manhattan born and bred, Duke is now — and has been for a dozen years — a denizen of a country bump-in-the-road called Spartan Lane (Idaho, don't cha know?). It's a place where chicks and ducks and geese really scurry when surreys and such come barreling down a dirt road — so isn't it a happy happenstance that, in her own hometown, she found a home-away-from-home in Oklahoma!?

In Rodgers and Hammerstein's landmark musical, which hits 60 on March 31 and which Cameron Mackintosh has reproduced with much fuss and feathers at the Gershwin, she's Aunt Eller [Murphy], a spindly spinster who dispenses words of wisdom while churning and gets the farmer and the cowman to harmonize by conducting them with a six-gun.

"I think, if I'd played this part years ago, I certainly would have been able to imagine that kind of connection to the earth, but now — after 12 years in Idaho — I get it. We have horses and sheep and goats and donkeys, all kinds of stuff. In North Idaho where we live — my husband, Mike, and our youngest son, Kevin — it's not exactly a pioneer village, but I saw more people in two days up here on the streets than there are in our whole county."

Given this extensive "prepping," it's no surprise she's so at home with the part. "Aunt Eller, to me, seems to be Mother Courage — with very few affectations and no self-pity. She's a survivor, and she demands survival out of the others. That 'Farmer and the Cowman' thing isn't just a cute little ditty that we all do. She's saying, 'If we are not a unit, then we are a billion fragments.' I think one of the reasons this show is such a hit this time is because people are in need of a demonstration of that kind of cohesion." Duke went into the role last month, on her 56th birthday — the first time she has been back on Broadway (save for eight days spent on the quick-sinking Isle of Children) since she started there, at age 12, as the unschooled enfant terrible, Helen Keller, in The Miracle Worker. The settings of both plays are the front yard of a rambling 19th-century farmhouse. The main thing missing from Oklahoma!'s minimalist set is the water pump where young Helen uttered her first word ("waa-waa," it was), joining the world of the aware.

That victory was a triumph of the human spirit, and Duke is forever associated with the role, just as Anne Bancroft is with the part of Annie Sullivan, the ferociously tenacious teacher who brought enlightenment to Keller's dark, mute world. It proved quite a battle, and it was capped by a classic dinner-table donnybrook where eggs, plates, silverware, water, seemingly the kitchen sink, went flying all over the stage — not, as you might expect, without some personal injuries. "Over time," says Duke, "we developed strategic padding, but I wore knee socks — even in summer — so people wouldn't notice the bruises.

"The profession of fight choreography didn't exist then. Every move we made in that fight was written by William Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn. All that choreography was in their heads before it got performed. Wouldn't it have made a magnificent ballet!"

Ironically, that's how the piece started. Gibson wrote a ballet with verse accompaniment based on Keller's autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” but it failed to find a production, so he showed it to his pal, Penn, who immediately saw the work as a drama. He helmed a "Playhouse 90" Miracle Worker with Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack in 1957, then redid it for Broadway two years later with Bancroft and Duke, who reprised their brilliant teamwork for the screen and got Oscars, respectively, as 1962's Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Sixteen at the time of her win, Duke was the youngest person to win an Oscar in competition with adults (Shirley Temple was awarded a special Oscar at age six) — till ten-year-old Tatum O'Neal scored in the same supporting category 11 years later.

Although her stage Keller won her a Theatre World Award and conceivably qualified her for a Purple Heart, Duke did not make the Tony running. But in 1980, when she was old enough to play Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert's Keller, she won an Emmy for her performance in the TV-movie version of The Miracle Worker. (Gilbert is now president of the Screen Actors Guild — a job Duke held from 1985 to 1988.) The apple, as they say, doesn't fall far from the tree.

Between these Broadway "book ends," Duke has lived a full life on the other coast in other mediums, collecting along the way two more Emmys (“My Sweet Charlie” and “The Captains and the Kings”), two Golden Globes (“The Miracle Worker” and “Me, Natalie”) and, lest we forget, a cult following (via her Neely O'Hara in “Valley of the Dolls”). She has played the first First Lady twice (a surprisingly sensual Martha in two “George Washington” TV movies), the first female US President (in the series, "Hail to the Chief") and even first person singular (herself in a TV-movie adaptation of her memoirs, “Call Me Anna”).

Of late, she has been the pride and joy of the Spokane Civic Theatre — her Amanda Wingfield is still spoken of there in hushed tones — and local theatre work has kept the dream alive. "The so-called 'non-professionals' are anything but," Duke declares. "The work there is so real and so good that I was stimulated to do more. Once I passed the age of 50, I decided it was time to take risks and spread my wings, so, when the question of Oklahoma! came up, I thought, 'Well, am I going to put my money where my mouth is? And my husband's? And my child's?' And I decided that the possibility of an opportunity like this coming again in my life is slim-to-nil, so I decided it was time to take the risk."

A wise old party, that Aunt Eller.