By Scott MacClelland
IN ANY COMMUNITY of stage actors, there are a few who eschew ensemble work in favor of performing solo or on occasion with another actor. Of this small group, Taelen Thomas and Rosemary Luke are prominent on the Monterey Peninsula. Both have reinvented themselves as historic individuals, Thomas as Mark Twain, Jack London and Teddy Roosevelt, among others. For a decade starting in her 50s, Luke performed in two-person productions of AR Gurney’s Love Letters, Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage and, most recently, David Hare’s The Breath of Life opposite fellow actress Jill Jackson. Many of her solo and duo performances have been staged at Carmel’s intimate Cherry Center for the Arts theater. (While she never specifically worked with Thomas, they recently participated in some readings at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.)
And it is at the Cherry Center that Luke makes her next appearance, starting this Friday, in popular Carmel director/ playwright Tom Parks’ new Zelda, Save Me the Waltz. The play is about Zelda Fitzgerald being interviewed by a reporter, played by Garland Thompson. “We see Zelda at the end of her life, in and out of mental institutions for 20 years,” Luke explains. “She’s ravaged. For me the challenge is how do you play madness, and how much madness can an audience take?”
This is Luke’s third show with Parks. “Zelda had been a beauty, and an intensity, an energy,” she says. “I was somewhat paralyzed because she died at 48, but when she was carried into the hospital someone said she looks 70. So I’ve got to keep it real, keep the madness real.” And there’s another thing. “Zelda had severe eczema all over her body much of her life.” Therefore Luke expected to do a lot scratching during the new show. “Tom directed me to localize a place to scratch.” Luke says that she and Parks have been “chums” for years. He directed her in his one-woman play about Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell Is This? (See top photo.) “That one was incredibly difficult,” she says. She also complains that learning lines now doesn’t come as easy as when she was young. But, “learning lines is a marvelous exercise for your brain.”
Luke and her first husband came to the Monterey Peninsula, to teach at Robert Louis Stevenson School, after meeting at Occidental College in Pasadena. She grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, the oldest of four siblings, then went to prep school outside of New York City. “Growing up East Coast did not suit me,” she says firmly. “When I came to California, at 21, it was freedom.” She will still complain about East Coast sensibilities. “It was about the way you should be, strictly, the way to dress, the way to sit, to think, to write a thank you note.” To Luke, California permissiveness is the right thing. But at that time theater was the last thing on her mind. “My whole life was music. I played piano, organ, sang in the glee club.” Then lightning struck. “Occidental was theater. It was a great college.”
At Stevenson, whose student body then was all boys, she taught English, speech and drama. “I was better at drama than anything academic,” she says. Launching the drama department, she figured how to get the boys to audition. “I’d go over to [the all-girl] Santa Catalina School and bring back the prettiest girl for the cast.”
Luke began her “reentry” into local theater in the late ‘80s after her two children left the nest. Her son Dylan is in Denver “with a doctor wife” and two kids of their own. “My gorgeous daughter, Rosemary Garrison, a yoga instructor, divides her time between San Francisco and Ojai. “Then Peter Reynolds came into my life. He came over for a glass of wine and has been sitting here for almost nine years.” That distraction interrupted her acting career for four years.
Luke loves living here (in Carmel Valley) and takes full advantage of local resources. She keeps in shape with hikes and long walks, and loves Big Sur, the beach and the land of Robinson Jeffers. She could have become an Equity actor but that would bar entry into community theater. “Putting this kind of energy into the community is good for my health,” she says. “If a youngster would be okay with the madness, they would probably get something out of coming to the show,” she says with a mischievous tone.