REPORT FROM REGIONAL THEATRE
For Sandy Duncan, the horror of being a "pixie at 90" is what propelled her into starring in and co-writing with Marc Alan Zagoren a new play with music, Free Fall, which received its world-premiere engagement in August on the Mainstage of the Berkshire Theatre Fest-ival in Stockbridge, Mass.
"Women my age stop being relevant because they're trying to cling to this persona they created in their twenties," said the 50-year-old actress who became America's perky sweetheart first on television and then in a number of musicals, including Peter Pan. "The public doesn't like change, so you become ossified into a caricature of yourself instead of taking risks."
Duncan plays four characters in the course of the spiritual journey she charts in Free Fall; her husband, actor-dancer Don Correia (with whom she danced on Broadway in My One and Only), acts as a foil to them. Starting out by directly talking to the audience as herself, she metamorphoses into a young flapper, a homosexual male and finally an aging mega-star, all of which, according to Duncan, try to hold onto their sense of security only to have it pulled out from under them.
The actress says that the play is loosely autobiographical, noting that the death of the husband that pulls the flapper up short is a metaphor of sorts for the early brush with mortality she herself experienced at age 24. "I had a life-threatening brain tumor, but I breezed through it like it was a common cold," she recalls, not bothering to mention that the experience left her sight-impaired. "If I'd just taken the time to really listen and learn from this experience, I might have faced some scary but profound truths early on. But I felt the need to respond in a way that I thought people expected me to respond."
Duncan's plucky and cheery image, developed since the age of 12 when she entered show business from a small town in Texas, has earned her the affection of the public over the years. But while she enjoyed success, financial security and a strong marriage to Correia by whom she has two childrennow young teensthe actress was on a downward emotional spiral that led to a clinical depression three years ago.
Duncan says that she was able to emerge from the overwhelming feelings of darkness and entrapment through the help of professionals and her family and friends. But the ultimate therapy was getting closer in touch with herself by following Thoreau's adage to "simplify, simplify, simplify."
"I lived most of my life with this tunnel vision, all controlled and all planned," she says. "But we're all in free fall whether we know it or not. And it really is the most joyous way to live. You've just got to jump and trust that the chute will open."
Writing the play with Zagoren, who teaches drama at the University of New Jersey, was also therapeutic. She chose to do a workshop of the play this past summer at the Water Tower Theatre in Tyler, Texas, just southeast of her hometown of Dallas. And she hopes to continue to develop it in regional theatre before taking it, hopefully, to New York. She found audiences surprisingly supportive and understanding. "I wasn't just the lady in the 'Wheat Thins' commercial to them," she says. "They forgot who I was after a while and went on the journey with me."-- By Patrick Pacheco