Vineyard Playhouse dedicates new stage to the late Patricia Neal

Vineyard Playhouse dedicates new stage to the late Patricia Neal

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The late Patricia Neal, left, with Playhouse artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, in the summer of 2009. — Photo by Jaxon White

She was a familiar figure to theater goers in Vineyard Haven each summer. Increasingly fragile but unflaggingly enthusiastic and approachable, the late, highly acclaimed actress Patricia Neal was a frequent Vineyard Playhouse patron, beaming her approval to both actors and audience.

This Sunday evening, at the theater’s annual fundraising gala, artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, accompanied by Ms. Neal’s children, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy Dahl, will announce the Playhouse’s intention to dedicate its new stage in Ms. Neal’s name, upon completion of the theater’s extensive renovation.

“We hold Patricia Neal and her career in the highest esteem,” Ms. Munafo explains. “She was the ‘Grande Dame’ of the Vineyard and such a friend and supporter of the Playhouse.”

The Tony- and Academy-award-winning actress made her seasonal home in a restored sea captain’s house on South Water Street in Edgartown for three decades, after following her close friend and fellow actress, the late Mildred Dunnock, to the Island. According to Lucy Dahl, her mother loved life on the Vineyard, finding joy in the small-town feel of the community and the way it accepted her.

“An actress’s life is a ‘Catch-22′,” she says. “They feed off recognition but want to be treated like the girl next door. Here, she achieved both and found a happy balance.”

While Ms. Neal had an inkling that the Playhouse, one of her favorite summer haunts, might honor her in some form, she never received formal notification about the naming of the new stage in her honor. It was, however, always her dream.

“She used to drive by the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven and make a funny comment about how Katharine has her own theater,” she says. “Out of all the awards and recognition she earned, this would be her greatest thrill. Her legacy will remain alive in a place so dear to her.”

Ophelia Dahl echoes her sister’s delight in the Playhouse’s recognition of their mother.

“The Playhouse featured prominently in her time on the Vineyard,” she observes. “She battled through so many difficult times and emerged intact. This naming of the stage is a tribute not just to her talent but to her strength, her talent, her incredible dedication to her craft, and to her happiness in bringing people together. It’s fitting that the Playhouse is a gathering place, a place where people meet.”

The naming of the stage will be announced at the Playhouse’s major annual fundraising gala from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Sunday, July 31, at the home of a board member and generous supporter. The theater launched an ambitious $5 million fundraising campaign last summer, the first phase of which involves the complete interior and exterior renovation of the historic downtown Church Street building, circa 1833.

To date, the theater has raised more than $300,000 in donations and grants earmarked for new windows, clapboard siding, trim, fresh paint, and sprinkler system improvements, all of which were unveiled at the start of the 2011 season. Ms. Munafo estimates that it will take another $1 million to complete all interior renovations, including an addition, a new patio, and the complete reconfiguring of all interior space. Future development funds will go toward the purchase of actor housing, the construction of a scene shop and rehearsal hall, and toward ensuring a more stable financial future.

According to Lucy, Ms. Neal and Ms. Munafo forged a strong friendship.

“My mother treasured a small engraved statue from the Playhouse that she always kept on her mantelpiece,” she says. “This is not a little small-town theater. It has wonderful performances that my mother loved to attend. We couldn’t be more excited about the dedication of the stage.”

For more information on ticket availability for the Summer Gala, contact Ian Geers at 508-693-6450, ext. 29 or email: ian@vineyardplayhouse.org.