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'Show-Off' actress is in a changing role

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The chance to perform in George Kelly's rarely produced 1924 comedy, "The Show-Off," is something of a novelty, but Pamela Payton-Wright is now appearing in her second production. And this time she's playing the mother of the character she originally played.

Payton-Wright's first "Show-Off" was a 1967 hit Broadway revival. It was an auspicious production for her not only because it marked her New York debut, but also because it gave her the opportunity to act opposite the late Helen Hayes.

At Center Stage, Payton-Wright has been cast in Hayes' part -- Mrs. Fisher, the no-nonsense matriarch of a working-class, north Philadelphia family whose members' lives are upset by the younger daughter's braggart sweetheart.

Sitting in a lounge outside the rehearsal room, Payton-Wright says that when Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis called her about this production, the actress couldn't imagine which role she was right for. The role of Mrs. Fisher, she says, "never occurred to me because I'm quite a bit younger than Miss Hayes was."

One thing that changed her mind was the positive experience she had at Center Stage last season playing another older matriarch -- Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's "Ghosts." "I believe if you are an actor you can convince an audience of just about anything," says Payton-Wright, who is in her early 50s but looks at least a decade younger.

Lewis, who is directing the production, agrees. "She's an actress who transforms herself," she says. "She's a director's dream -- talent, imagination, lack of sentimentality, instinctively knows the pace, wonderful use of language, fabulous and unexpected sense of humor."

In 1967, when she played Amy, the younger daughter, in the Broadway revival of "The Show-Off," the fledgling actress won accolades such as "excellent" and "touching" from the New York critics.

T. Edward Hambleton, the Baltimore-born co-founder of the Phoenix Theatre, which co-produced the revival, has strong memories of Payton-Wright from that production. "She was great to work with, and everybody liked her as a person, as a fellow player," he says. "She was extremely agreeable and dedicated to her craft."

Even then, Hambleton says, "She gave every indication that she was going to be an actress of first quality."

As to the distinguished Helen Hayes, he recalls that her presence "was particularly invigorating to the company."

Payton-Wright, however, admits: "I was a little scared of Miss Hayes. She was wonderful, but I was a little scared."

Some performers might find it daunting to play a role associated with the actress who was known as "the first lady of the American theater." Or they might be concerned about a temptation to imitate what was described "one of the great performances of [Hayes'] storied career."

None of this bothers Payton-Wright, who says: "What was wonderful about her performance was her. I wouldn't want to take anything from her performance. The only similarity is it's the same part. Whoever does it has to do it their own way."

And how does Payton-Wright see Mrs. Fisher? "She's not a soft, sentimental mother, but she is protective and loving -- in a fierce kind of way. And she also has values that she will defend in her fierceness."

The character, she continues, reminds her of three women who have been important in her life: her mother, her aunt, and a friend's mother -- a woman who attended Buffalo Bill's funeral. "They are wonderful women you can't help admiring and loving, but they're funny women, too," she says. "Each is totally different, but the thing that's the same is the strength."

Payton-Wright gets her interest in theater from her mother, who grew up in a small town 85 miles north of Pittsburgh and acted in plays as a child. "She told me about a month before she died, 'I dreamed you up.' She had a dream of having a daughter who'd be an actress," she explains.

Despite her mother's dream, Payton-Wright didn't become serious about the stage until she was a sophomore in high school in Memphis, Tenn. Even so, the soft-spoken actress recalls: "I would choose the smallest role. I was quite shy."

Her father's job with Pittsburgh Plate Glass kept the family on the move, however, and after leaving Memphis -- and her school's excellent drama program -- Payton-Wright drifted away from theater. She majored in English at Birmingham Southern College, but in her junior year she began considering an acting career.

After graduation, she spent two years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She won the academy's prize for high comedy, but -- in a kind of foreshadowing of her roles at Center Stage -- she found herself typecast in older-woman roles.

Returning to the United States, Payton-Wright spent the next two years broadening her experience as a company member at regional theaters in Milwaukee and in Providence, R.I. Then came "The Show-Off," in which she toured as well as made her Broadway debut. A year later, in 1968, she came to Baltimore for the first time, playing opposite Dustin Hoffman in the pre-Broadway tour of Murray Schisgal's "Jimmy Shine" at the Mechanic Theatre.

A host of Broadway and off-Broadway credits followed, including award-winning roles in plays ranging from "Mourning Becomes Electra" to "Jessie and the Bandit Queen." But despite her success, she made a deliberate decision to cut back her career to raise her son, Oliver, now a high school student.

In the interim, Payton-Wright has done a considerable amount of film and TV work, which didn't require being away from her Pound Ridge, N.Y., home for prolonged periods of time. She recently added "Homicide" to credits that include "Mannix," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke" and "Law and Order." Cast as a nun in the Baltimore-based series, she appeared in this season's first three "Homicide" episodes.

The stage remains her favorite medium, but, she says, "It's such a business to go out of town, I have to have a huge challenge." Returning to "The Show-Off" after almost two decades is that type of challenge.

Center Stage's Lewis says one of the pleasures of rehearsals was the interaction between Payton-Wright and Katie MacNichol, who is cast in the ingenue role that Payton-Wright played in the 1967 revival. "It's just so moving to think that she was the ingenue, and there she is, playing Mrs. Fisher," Lewis says. "She is so supportive of Katie MacNichol, saying, 'You're finding things I never dreamed.' "

'THE SHOW-OFF'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. May 24. Audio-described performances at 8 p.m. May 9 and 1 p.m. May 24; sign-interpreted performances at 1 p.m. May 24 and 2 p.m. May 27. Through May 28

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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