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Rasa Fournier

A Woman Of Substance

Perhaps the finest actress of her generation, or any other, Anna Pearce – aka Patty Duke – jumps at the chance to co-star with Joe Moore in Heaven Forbid!, which the KHON news anchor co-wrote. It opens June 20 at Hawaii Theatre

Patty Duke’s wunderkind performance as a blind and deaf child in the film The Miracle Worker (1962) caused adults to weep and inspired teens to dream. That breakthrough role as Helen Keller made her the youngest Oscar winner at the time, leading to her own sitcom, The Patty Duke Show, and a six-decade career in TV, film and stage, as well as multiple Emmy and Golden Globe wins.

Duke is now in Hawaii starring in Heaven Forbid! at Hawaii Theatre with KHON news anchor and veteran actor Joe Moore. When Moore contacted Duke’s manager, Duke says she had a pretty easy decision to make.

“I don’t think you’ll find many performers turn down a month in Hawaii,” she says with an easy-flowing chuckle. In fact, everything she says has a kind of playfulness to it, like you’re having an informal chat with a favorite aunt. “Joe sent the script and I fell in love with the character and the whole play – you know, it’s all about me!” she laughs, adding, “The character says stuff I would love to say, but that would be socially unacceptable.”

One immediately striking characteristic is Duke’s vivacity despite incredible adversity in her early years.

Her parents were fighting their own personal demons, so she was raised by her acting managers, who were abusive. For that reason, she prefers to go by her given name and her married name, rather than the popular name her managers gave her. And she gets a kick out of the small ruckus it causes on the set:

“On a daily basis, I go by Anna Pearce; when I work I go by Patty Duke, except in rehearsals, which drives the cast crazy. I appreciate when they call me Anna, but what that does is it really gets people stuttering, Pa … Pa … Ann …”

One of the most formative events in Pearce’s life – let’s use her preferred name – was her diagnosis as bipolar, launching a lifelong passion for mental health advocacy. It also played a role in enticing her to the Islands for a cameo on Hawaii Five-0 in 2011. She played the part of a mother who has Alzheimer’s and believes her son who was killed in Afghanistan is still alive.

“My part wasn’t more than four minutes, but they did such a good job of writing it and editing it that it seemed to hold its own,” says Pearce of the role. “Being able to, even in a few minutes, portray a person dealing with Alzheimer’s was very touching to me. I’m not as well-versed in it as I am with other stuff I’ve lived through, but it’s part and parcel in terms of people refusing to get help.”

Pearce says theatrical job offers have whittled down, but then she explains that she lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a beautiful place in the Northwest with a pretty name but freezing climate much of the year. When Hawaii called, in the form of Joe Moore’s latest production, she answered.

“I thought Anna would be great in Heaven Forbid!” says Moore, though he had not yet met her. “I have admired her work for a long time. I could just see her in this leading female role, and I thought she would have fun doing it. The question was, is she going to be available and will she like it?”

Apparently she did, because Moore heard back from her right away, saying she loved the script. The script is by Michael Aitkens, in collaboration with Moore. Moore was a fan of Aitkens’ 1990s BBC series, Waiting for God.

“I thought, there’s a really good stage comedy waiting to be adapted for this,” says Moore. Never shy about reaching out to colossal names in show biz, Moore contacted Aitkens in London and sought his permission to adapt his favorite parts of the five-series show for stage and to transplant the characters from a retirement home in England to one in New Jersey.

“(The result, Heaven Forbid!) is a smart, adult comedy about two rebellious seniors in a retirement home,” says Moore. “It deals with these dilemmas of aging and trying to remain independent in the face of those who wish the old would just fade away.

“There’s a tender and poignant touch to the play that gives you a nice contrast between you’re laughing a lot and then suddenly you’ve shifted into this really nice moment.”

To make the most of Pearce’s time in Hawaii, the eight-member cast worked on memorizing their individual parts so that, by the time Pearce arrived and they had their first read-through, the group was comfortable with their lines. The cast includes local theater gems Paul Mitri (“He is so good as the manager of the retirement home who is a little vain and a lot greedy,” notes Moore), Stephanie Conching, Rob Duval (who is also the director), Tricia Marciel, George O’Hanlon and Stacy Ray Groves (in a dual role).

“We’ve got the cream of the crop; I’m delighted with the cast,” says Moore, noting that his and Pearce’s characters have great chemistry. “We’ve been kidding and ribbing each other about one thing or another, so I think it’s going to play really well onstage.”

Given Pearce’s special love for community theater and an illustrious resume of acting awards and accolades, the production is bound to be a winner.

“The theater is where my heart is,” she says. “There’s nothing like that communion between people there in the dark and all of the performers.”

Theater has been her activity of choice at home in Idaho as well. “For me, it’s been a new beginning in a way,” she says. “When I work with so-called ‘non-professional actors’ there, I learn so much, because they haven’t developed the bad habits where you just fall into what you know. It has been a shot in the arm creatively.”

Pearce’s only experiences of Hawaii have been through the lens of working, but that’s the best way to get to know a place, she points out: “You’re working with locals, so you’re off the beaten path a good deal of the time and you get good home-cooked meals!”

When she’s not engaged in acting, Pearce is crisscrossing the country, sometimes on a weekly basis, to speak about mental illness. Wherever she goes, husband Michael is at her side.

“We made a deal 28 years ago that we wanted to do a 24-7 marriage. I work in front of the camera and he works behind. I would never get where I’m supposed to be without him. And I’m talking emotionally as well as physically.”

Given turbulent early relationships, she’s thankful for her husband, a military man who was assigned to coach her those many years ago in preparation for a film role. He’s remained her pillar ever since.

“God smiled on me,” she agrees. “After all of that trouble I made, and trouble I had, God really smiled on me. And I’m … you’re going to make me cry.”

Pearce is witty and spirited, and she’s not afraid to show her softer side. She’s candid in talking about her childhood difficulties, candid in confronting the topic of mental health, and she’s equally un-abashed about sharing a heart-felt personal moment. That genuine expression of gratitude also is something Pearce has become accustomed to receiving from fans over the years, who are eager to share with her how profoundly she has affected their lives.

“It’s amazing how we touch people in ways we don’t know,” she says. “Sometimes total strangers in an airport come up to me and they say ‘I became a teacher of special needs children because I saw The Miracle Worker when I was young.’ Holy cow!”

Just as the conversation begins plumbing deeper terrain, a wardrobe fitting suddenly steals Pearce away. As Moore says, it’s been a “blitzkrieg” of rehearsals (coordinated around his news anchor duties), staging arrangements and set building.

Just before she heads off to admire the clothes, Pearce notes:

“We had our first read through and my God it was good. Everybody, every cast member, is just terrific!”

See Pearce, Moore and the terrific cast of Heaven Forbid! June 20-30, at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Seats cost $32-$72 each. For tickets or more information, call 528-0506 or visit hawaiitheatre.com.

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