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- Ruth in Ruth Draper on Tour, Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Stratford Festival
VIEW Magazine - May 2005
by Kerry Corrigan
Lally Cadeau, Stratford Leading Lady, is warm and natural and casual, and yet still utterly glamourous, despite our mid-morning appointment. She is also quick to laugh, and loves to tell stories; the half-hour interview in the Avon Theatre rehearsal hall is rich with anecdotes about her own life, about monologue artist Ruth Draper’s life, and about having the chance to reprise the role of Big Mama in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The vivacious actress who is starring in the one-woman show, Ruth Draper on Tour, at the Stratford Festival was born in Hamilton, raised in Burlington for 8 years, then moved back to Hamilton, where she attended Loretto Academy.
It feels cozy and familiar in the rehearsal hall as she recalls her childhood, and how she got her start at The Players’ Guild.
“My uncle who’s just died, William Mitchell, and his wife Liz Murley, were staples of The Players’ Guild. They were fabulous, both of them, really fabulous actors. Because in those days, amateur theatre was just almost all there was. It was only the beginning of places like this, or regional theatre, and there were some very fine actors in amateur theatre.
“First of all I did the young Elizabeth in Elizabeth Rex, and then with my uncle a couple of years later I did Five Finger Exercise. He played the tutor and I played the young girl, and that,” she emphasizes with a soft enthusiasm in her voice, “was a wonderful experience”.
She was around seven in Elizabeth, and 13 when she did Five Finger Exercise, “although when I look at pictures of myself I look so sophisticated, because we used to wear those short, sort of bouffant hair-do’s, and I look, you know, like thirty-five or something,” she says with a wry smile.
Is that where you got the acting bug? I query.
“It’s interesting because Ruth Draper, as a child, was sort of a little sickly, and I was a little sickly, and had to stay in bed for a year and that sort of thing. She used to occupy herself making up characters, and I did the same thing.
“When we used to travel, my mother, and brother and I, in the car down to Florida or whatever, I used to pick up the accents of all the states, and mimic the gas station attendants, and I found it absolutely fascinating.
“The bug was just always there.”
Her mother had been an actress and sang in the choir in Hamilton.
“She got a very nice powder blue suit with fur collar and my great-aunt, her aunt Marie, they went down to New York, as my great-aunt was a lady’s maid for Gary Cooper and the Morgans and all these people, and she had great aspirations for her niece.”
Her mother met a lot of big names in New York. “She dieted, and auditioned, and did all that stuff, and then got terrified when she realized that there’s more to the business than meets the eye,” Cadeau says with a twinkle.
“She wasn’t ready for that. And she went back to Hamilton, and then she met my dad. She was a politician’s wife, and that was her acting job.”
Cadeau’s father, Alvin Cadeau, was being groomed by Lester Pearson for great things in the Liberal party. He died very young, at the age of 42, when Lally was only six.
“(Prime Minister) Louis St. Laurent used to come to our house, and I have a doll that he gave me when I was little, and I met all these people. I just thought that that was what life was, you went to a big dinner, and you came out in your jammies and said goodnight to everyone and they laughed and you went upstairs.”
No wonder Cadeau feels a kinship with monologist Ruth Draper “in many, many ways.”
“She came from a great old American, patrician family.” A debutante born into NYC society, “she knew kings, and queens, and princes, all over the world.
“That’s where she started her career. She went into people’s salons and performed her pieces. Mind you, they were the Rothschilds, but still . . . ! And people went crazy about them.
“I think it was Henry James who said (to her), ‘you’ve woven a marvelous carpet, now you must fly on it. And fly she did.”
Draper was remarkable for traveling everywhere, starting in the 1920’s and continuing until her death at age 72, in 1956, which occurred after a matinee and evening performance on Broadway. “Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Russia” - it was quite the itinerary for a woman, traveling alone. Just her and her trunks, not even an assistant; Draper often self-financed the shows. “She was a very astute business woman.”
She certainly didn’t need the money, but “she was driven. She was a very cozy, domesticated person, and she was a profound romantic, and yet she sacrificed that for her art.
“(Director/Writer) Raymond (O’Neill) has done a brilliant job putting this show together. And he has a very good relationship with her official biographer Dorothy Warren, who’s thrilled with the script.”
He’s taken hundreds of letters, which have never been on stage before, and has them forming links between the “mono-dramas”, as Cadeau refers to the famous monologues. Draper wrote many letters, but particularly to her friend Harriet Marple, and O’Neill has used those letters, so full of confidences and personal details.
Cadeau promises “a very clear picture of the woman.”
The monologues themselves are as varied as Draper’s travels. She didn’t just portray the upper-crust people she consorted with.
“She would go into the heart of the London slums. She was fearless, and loved people. She found interesting things in all kinds of people.”
This means that Cadeau plays, among other things, an Irish-American charwoman, a little, poor Cockney girl, a Slavic actress, an aged English gardener, a young, French mother with a newborn, and the list goes on. She describes one scene set at an English house party where she plays four different characters. “But through these four characters, you meet about twelve other characters.” Phew!
Draper’s vagabond lifestyle certainly appeals to Cadeau - “It’s a great adventure.”
She’d love to follow in Draper’s footsteps and take her show to the exotic locations that Draper visited so many years before.
Ruth Draper on Tour is part of a double-bill with The Measure of Love, a two character play by Nicolas Billon.
Cadeau also plays Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Oh that’s fun!” she exclaims when asked.
She’s played the part before, (she’s also played Maggie) but says that she didn’t feel she had achieved what she wanted. When she arrived at Stratford, she brought director Richard Monette “a little box of chocolates, and said, ‘this is a bribe. I want you to help me. I want to go deeper with this, I want to find something out.’ And he said ‘OK’.”
Part of playwright Tennessee Williams’ genius lies in his timelessness.
The play is “fifty years old, but the issues are still there. The irony is that this is in the southern United States. All the issues of homosexuality, and cancer, mendacity, alcoholism . . . nothing has changed. Part of what’s killing this young boy is the attitude toward homosexuality. Well, hello?”
Meeting the magnificent challenge of playing the part of Brick’s over-bearing mother becomes a lesson in extremes. “You find a way of maintaining humanity but you gotta go there.”
Ms. Cadeau has also woven a marvelous carpet for herself, and she knows what to do.
// tie dye