Another honor for the late Patricia Neal

Photo by Michael Cummo

Twelve members of the Patricia Neal family gathered at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse last Friday for a dedication ceremony honoring the late actress, whose dazzling career included winning Tony and Academy awards for best actress. The Playhouse recently reopened after a two-year renovation hiatus.The brief ceremony and reception officially unveiled the new stage which has been named after Neal, a longtime friend, supporter and fan of the 32-year-old organization.

“My mum was an actor’s actor,” said Neal’s daughter, writer/actress Tessa Dahl, during a brief speech in which she returned to the Playhouse a plaque honoring her mother. “I think that’s why she loved this theater so much.”

Neal died in 2010 at her home in Edgartown. She was a committed member of the Vineyard community, serving on various boards and supporting a number of organizations, including Camp Jabberwocky. Neal was an important part of the Playhouse family for years, acting as honorary board member and attending almost every production. She was an honored guest at many Playhouse events and fundraisers. In 2009, the Playhouse hosted a memorable one-night performance of Neal’s show “As I Am,” which looked back at the actress’s illustrious career.

Highlights from that long career included playing opposite Paul Newman in “Hud,” a prolific Broadway career, and a Tony award. However, Neal’s personal life was fraught with tragedy — including the death of a child, the near death of another, the breakup of her marriage to writer Roald Dahl, and a devastating stroke which left her in a three-month coma when she was pregnant with her fifth child.

That child, screenwriter Lucy Dahl, gave a short speech at the dedication ceremony and read from her mother’s contribution to a book by Larry King called “Remember Me When I’m Gone.” Asked by King to supply an appropriate epitaph, Ms. Neal’s response was, “Show me heaven. I’ve seen hell.” Ms. Dahl went on to say that her mother’s letter to King included a self-penned eulogy discussing the importance of family in her life.

Much of that family made the trip to Martha’s Vineyard specifically for the dedication. Among those gathered on the stage for the presentation were two of Neal’s children, five grandkids, and two great grandchildren. The latter served as ribbon cutters for the official launch of the new stage. The Dahl clan travelled from London, New York, and Los Angeles to attend the ceremony — a number of the guests hurried from the theater after a small reception to catch a plane back to England.

The new theater is the focal point of the Playhouse’s ongoing $5 million, three-phase renovation project. The first phase was completed this year in time for the theater to host a full season of plays, readings, and gallery shows. Currently on the mainstage is Larry Mollin’s “Search: Paul Clayton” a musical drama about the life of Bob Dylan’s mentor. The Playhouse is concurrently running an outdoor production of “The Three Musketeers” at the Tisbury Ampitheater.

In a short speech following the ribbon cutting, Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo opened by introducing herself as “the team captain of what Patricia called this darling little theater.” Ms. Munafo concluded her memorial to the woman she considered a great friend by saying, “Your spirit will strut this stage always.”