Sitting around one of the tables at the then-empty cafe at George Street Playhouse, my conversation with actress Sandy Duncan very soon seemed like catching up with a friend of long standing. For me, it was long standing, as I remember seeing her delightful romp as Maisie in the Broadway revival of the musical of “The Boy Friend” back in 1970 and flying over my head as “Peter Pan,” again on Broadway nine years later. But, of course, she didn’t see me; she just has that warm and ingratiating persona that makes for instant relationships.
New Brunswick audiences, disappointed that she didn’t appear as planned in last May’s production of “Creating Claire,” can heave a sigh of relief as producer David Saint has invited her back to appear in “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which is now in previews and opens on Friday, October 8, to kick off George Street Playhouse’s 37th season. Last May Duncan had an unfortunate collision with a mismarked bottle of vitamin D, which prompted a nearly fatal overdose. She is grateful to local doctors for identifying the problem and taking swift action. Fortunately, she is now back, good as new.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker was a major hit in New York’s last theater season. Produced Off Broadway by Playwrights Horizons, its run was extended a number of times, was nominated for Best Play by several critic groups, and won the OBIE Award for Best New American Play and an Emerging Talent Special Citation from the Drama Desk. This was Baker’s second play to make a big splash in New York City, garnering strong reviews and award nominations, all the more amazing considering how young she is; she was born in 1981.
The play is set in a small town in Vermont, in an exercise room in the town’s community center. The life of the play takes place over a span of six weeks of an acting class for adults. Duncan plays the teacher who leads a disparate group of locals in exercises that probably won’t produce actors and actresses, but certainly opens doors of understanding into their own psyches. As Duncan says, “It’s not really about an acting class. It’s a play about self discovery that happens through this acting class.” According to a press statement, these characters reveal secrets they never intended and are transformed in ways they never expected.
Though Duncan has never taught an acting class, “I don’t have the patience, not even for dance classes,” which were her first introduction to the world of theater, but two very special teachers in Texas and two more in her early New York City days had a deep impact on her life. “Some of the most valuable people in our society are teachers,” she says.
When Duncan was performing as Roxie Hart in the musical “Chicago” (1996) as a replacement cast member in that long-running Broadway show, she had an opportunity to make a public tribute. As she tells me about this, Duncan’s voice breaks. “I’m starting to cry.” One of her teachers, Uta Graham — “we called her Miss Utah” (pronounced with a Southern drawl) — attended a performance, for the first time seeing her former student in a big New York City theater. (She had seen Duncan in touring shows when they went to Dallas.)
At the curtain call, Duncan stepped forward, asking Miss Uta to stand, introducing her teacher to the rest of the audience, saying, “Every step I know is because of this woman.” Duncan remembers those classes with Miss Uta. “We did our exercises holding onto pool tables at the VFW hall.” Not too unlike the Vermont community center in “Circle Mirror Transformation.” This was a glorious moment. How often we don’t get around to thanking special people. Miss Uta died a year later.
Another teacher Duncan remembers with gratefulness is Zula Pearson, who taught at a community junior college in Jacksonville, Texas, which Duncan attended for one year. “She was an amazing teacher and taught a lot of people who ended up working in this business, including Tommy Tune. She absolutely got rid of my Texas accent before I came to New York. She just insisted.”
Duncan’s college career was cut short when she went to New York and got work in the theater right away. Her first New York shows were at City Center, and all were revivals: “Carousel,” “The Music Man,” Life with Father,” and “Finnian’s Rainbow.” At age 22 she replaced the leading lady in the popular Off Broadway rock musical, “Your Own Thing,” an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” In New York City she studied with the legendary acting teacher Wynn Handman and voice teacher Jack Lee, both of whom she credits for a large part of her professional training.
Duncan was born in Henderson, Texas, and began performing professionally at age 12, as one of the princesses in a production of “The King and I.” She appeared in 24 shows in Dallas before she came to New York. It was the custom then for professional touring shows to bring in the stars and use local performers to fill in the supporting roles. This proved in actuality to be a very useful “acting class.”
Her dad ran a gas station and her mother was a stay-at-home mom with the dreams of an artist. “Mom should have had my life,” Duncan says. Her mother would spend hours making a beaded gown for her. “I think I was the only girl in Texas who had a hand-beaded gown.” She was also an artist and the then-governor of Texas bought one of her paintings. “She was very creative, but she got stuck in a time and place where she couldn’t get out,” Duncan says. “So, she sort of vicariously lived through me.” That’s a heavy burden.
“I know my mother’s life story more than my own because I’m carrying that with me, too. I became aware at one point that I wasn’t living the life she would have chosen; she would have done it differently.” Her mother’s story certainly helps her understand the needs of the characters in “Circle, Mirror.” “People are so emotionally tight. That’s where something creative can make a big difference. People can start to open up.”
She says she finds the style of Baker’s writing to be a challenge as it has concise directions to the actor, down to the length of a pause. “It has to be performed with the precision of choreography.” Certainly, Duncan has the dance background to master this material. And in life, she admits to being a neatness freak. As we talk, she spills the sugar packet when she sweetens her iced tea. Everything has to stop while she cleans this up. So “concise” should be no problem for her.
Duncan is probably best known for her television work in a number of television variety shows and series, including a musical adaptation of “Pinocchio” with Danny Kaye and Flip Wilson and “The Hogan Family.” She received Emmy nominations for “Funny Face” and a dramatic role in “Roots.” And no one could have missed her as the smiling spokeswoman for Wheat Thin crackers.
More recently she has done more straight dramas, including playing Amanda in a production of “Glass Menagerie” at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, Pennsylvania, and the Miss of the title in “Driving Miss Daisy” at Casa Manana Theater in her home state. Her teacher, Miss Zula, should note that a southern accent can come in handy sometimes. Other dramas and comedies have followed. In 2002 she starred in the A.R. Gurney play, “The Fourth Wall” at Primary Stages in New York City under the direction of George Street’s David Saint. That was a providential meeting.
Duncan has been married to dancer Don Correia since 1980. When they were in Los Angeles, they realized that they had gotten there a little late. As Duncan says, “It was the end of the musical comedy era. Don’s a song and dance man.”
I saw him in 1985 in the Broadway stage version of “Singing in the Rain,” which ran for almost a year, where he played the role made famous in the film by Gene Kelly. Except for a few turns with his wife for symphony concerts, he has settled into a career in real estate. And they’ve also settled in Manhattan, which Duncan has always called home since she left Texas.
Trips to Los Angeles were just that — “trips.” They have two sons, one is in Japan teaching and the other just graduated from Tulane University with a degree in anthropology. “Right now he’s doing temp work. What he really wants to do is manage musicians. Guess we’ll be subsidizin him for a few more years.”
Duncan, too, has made a career shift, focusing on theater that doesn’t require the high kicks. “I did ‘No No Nannette’ two years ago for City Center Encores. There are two big dance numbers in it, and I know Ruby Keeler was my age when she did them (in the 1971 revival) but dancing (back) then was very simple.” The 2008 more complex choreography was a life-changing experience. “I had to try to hold my own with 25-year-olds. Physically, I did it: all the kicks and jumps. But it killed me, wrecked my back. And I thought, ‘This is unseemly.’”
Maybe she was feeling glum on the inside, but theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times about her performance, “She exudes such generous joy in her craft that her smile becomes yours; she’s a human antidepressant.” Just talking with her alone, around a cafe table at George Street, I have to agree with that assessment.
"Circle Mirror Transformation," George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Ppening night, Friday, October 8, 8 p.m. Comedy by Annie Baker about four people in a Vermont community center drama class. $29.50 to $79.50. Through October 31. 732-246-7717. or www.gsponline.org.