by Cynthia Citron
“I have a long history of flamenco,” Pamela Dunlap says — her tongue firmly in her cheek. And thereby hangs the tale.
“Actually, I’m not a dancer,” she continues. “I’m dragged kicking and screaming into flamenco class” as the lead in Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song, now having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre.
Playing Rochelle — a middle-aged, out-of-shape Jewish woman who’s undergoing a crisis of faith — Dunlap is persuaded to join a flamenco class for other middle-aged, out-of-shape women. The production unites two of the Fountain’s specialties — plays and the subject of flamenco (the Fountain is presenting Forever Flamenco at the Ford on June 15).
“It’s an all-female cast,” Dunlap says, “and the camaraderie is great. It’s a wonderful journey.” Shirley Jo Finney is directing.
When I suggest that it sounds a bit like Steel Magnolias, a perennial favorite, she says, “Oh no, it’s not anything like Steel Magnolias! In this play nobody has diabetes, nobody’s getting their hair done, and there are no cranky old women.”
She should know. She was in a Salt Lake City production of Steel Magnolias, playing the role of the former mayor’s widow, who describes the new mayor’s wife as looking, while dancing, “like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.”
Dunlap confesses that early in her career she taught Latin dances — the cha-cha, the merengue, the samba — at a Xavier Cugat Dance Studio in New York. “Cugat was the Arthur Murray of Latin dancing,” she says. “He had dance studios all over.”
Dunlap is herself a New York woman from Flushing and Jackson Heights. Currently she considers herself bicoastal, with a home in Manhattan and another in Van Nuys. In Southern California, she has performed at the Ahmanson, South Coast Rep, and LA Theatre Works, but this is her first appearance at the Fountain.
In New York she has been seen on Broadway in Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, and Yerma, and in several Off-Broadway roles. Recently, she appeared at Theater Raleigh in North Carolina as Mattie Fae, the nagging sister of Violet and mother of Little Charles in August Osage County.
On TV she has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, NCIS, Law and Order SVU andCommander in Chief, but her most visible role currently is as Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law and abominable baby-sitter for Betty’s daughter Sally on AMC’s Mad Men.
About her role as “Sally’s fiendish baby sitter,” she calls her “a woman with a great sense of entitlement, exactly the opposite of the woman I’m playing in Heart Song — a woman who is struggling to find her sense of entitlement.”
In Heart Song, Rochelle is “a woman who never married, whose mother recently died, and who has very little support. She’s in a painful place of transition, dealing with mortality and trying to find her own identity,” Dunlap explains.
Questioned about her identification with the characters she plays, she says, “acting allows us to play so many different characters, but we can always find something in ourselves that is like the character. The play mirrors the struggles we all go through, and we find a common history that we didn’t suspect we have in common. A common history or something that connects us to that character.”
On the adventure level, though, she has had a few experiences that aren’t reflected in any play she has appeared in. For example, when her son, Trevor Morgan Doyle, an anthropologist doing research in Finland, decided to marry a Finnish woman, she traveled to the wedding, driving a car for 10 hours above the Arctic Circle. “The car was chugging along because the fuel was freezing in the tank,” she says.
She also reports that the bride’s family, “obviously testing my mettle,” invited her to swim with them in weather that was 70 degrees below freezing. They dug a hole through the ice and then kept scraping the ice off the top of the hole as it froze on contact with the air.
Did she do it? You bet she did!
“Actually, they claim it’s a cure for depression,” she says. “You’re shocking your whole system. I’ve never felt so alive in my life!”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, she has ties with Ethiopia. She is an active member of the Salt Lake City-based Children of Ethiopia Education Fund, a non-governmental organization that provides schooling for girls in that country.
When not rolling naked in ice holes and visiting schools in Ethiopia, however, she has taken a few moments to accept awards. She has received three Drama-Logue awards, has been an honoree of the New York Drama League, and has won an OOBR (Off-Off Broadway Review) award.
As for the future, she has very definite ideas about whom she would like to work with. Before the question is completely posed, she answers enthusiastically, “Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the real deal.”
But for the present, she is delighted to be working with director Finney, choreographer Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez, and a cast consisting of Juanita Jennings, Tamlyn Tomita, Bermudez (through June 14), Denise Blasor (beginning June 15), Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou and Sherrie Lewandowski.
Photos by Ed Krieger. Cynthia Citron writes for LA Stage Times.
Heart Song Now to July 14 (323) 663-1525 MORE