Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2000
Ten years in the Girl Scouts taught Priscilla Allen to Be Prepared. It gave her the strength to go on, when her husband was killed at age 34, leaving her with three young daughters. And that event, 23 years ago, primed her for the role of Amanda Wingfield, the indomitable mother in The Glass Menagerie (at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 6/8-7/16).
Though she’s 61, and has been acting or teaching acting most of her life, Allen confesses that she never saw the American classic, until a few years ago.
“Age-wise, I’m right for Amanda now,” says Allen, in her deep, resonant voice. “We’re exactly the same age. But I always thought of her as small and fragile. Physically, I’m not the right look, so it’s a role I never fantasized about.”
Allen is tall and imposing. As a student at La Jolla High, she was the class clown, a dancer, athlete and trumpet player, the wild and creative one in the talent shows. She planned to be a gym teacher. It was a fluke that she landed in a drama class in her senior year (“it was that, shorthand or auto shop”). Raquel Welch was in the class, too; both were targeted for Big Things.
When Allen went on to SDSU (the first in her family to attend college), she was such a respected theater major that, at graduation (1961) the staff and students chipped in to send her to Broadway. It was a less than satisfying experience. She was extremely naïve, and totally unprepared for the business end of the business.
“I had no idea how to survive,” she admits. “I stayed about a year, worked in a department store, did a few things Off Off Off Broadway. I had a boyfriend back home who was missing me madly, and when a friend asked me to play the lead in Lysistrata, I thought I’d just go back to San Diego for awhile.”
She never left, and the old beau, whom she’d met while doing The Boyfriend, became her husband. Once Allen took on the role of mother, she stayed home to do it right, which included becoming a Scout leader for her girls.
She was back onstage at a fundraiser in La Jolla, when police chief and family friend Bill Kolender arrived to tell her the news. Denis, a ten-year veteran cop who was attending law school at night, was called to a Golden Hill apartment where a man was “‘acting strangely’… When they broke in,” Allen recalls, as if it were yesterday, “he was chopping at the sink with a big butcher knife. He also had a gun concealed. Everyone fired at once. The man was killed and Denis was shot in the chest and thrust across the balcony; he fell from the second floor. My girls were 7, 9 and 13 at the time. My life turned upside down. I found out a lot about myself and about survival.”
In 1980, Allen became a wildly popular teacher at the new School for Creative and Performing Arts, where she remained for 14 years. Her two youngest daughters attended the school and did community theater. Her oldest, Jennifer Allen, went on to perform on Broadway, in Cabaret, Ragtime, Guys and Dolls (Adelaide) and Cats (Grizabella). Meanwhile, Mom began teaching at Point Loma High, continuing to take acting jobs whenever she could, and directing at Junior Theatre.
Some of her favorite roles have been Lotte Schoen in Lettice and Lovage (Lamb’s Players Theatre), Mrs. Wall in Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts at the San Diego Rep (which went on to an Off Broadway run), Fraulein Schneider in the Rep’s Cabaret and Mrs. Venable, another of Tennessee Williams’ monstrous mothers, in Diversionary Theatre’s Suddenly Last Summer.
She’s still recognized almost daily as the exploding head in “Total Recall,” the blockbuster 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film. “They were looking for a large woman,” Allen says. “I was up against Matilda the Hun, the world’s heavyweight women’s wrestler. And also someone who looked like a guy in drag. They chose me because of my acting resume.”
Now, she gets to round it out with Amanda, one of the plum female roles in the American canon. The translucently autobiographical 1943 play mirrored Tennessee Williams’ own volatile and claustrophobic family
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the single mother issues,” Allen muses. “I identify with the fear she had. I see her as a strong character who’s a survivor. Even after [her son] Tom leaves at the end, she’s going to survive; she’ll find a way. She always holds out hope. As a mother, she’s a little heavy handed. Out of her frustration, she’s too intrusive, too controlling. I’d like to think I did a better job as a mother.
“But one must remember that, no matter how misguided and misdirected Amanda may be, she has enormous love for her children, even though they don’t meet her expectations. That element has to be there. Sean [Murray, the director] told me I have a wonderful vulnerability. I think I come by that naturally. To play her will challenge every strength I have.” Perseverance and hard work — two more lessons she learned in Scouts.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.