The Play's the Thing
"I hate the idea that I've been resurrected," says actress Jacqueline Gaston. "I hear people say I've inspired them, that if I can come back after what I've been through, they can do anything. It all makes me sound so noble, like I'm a much better person than I actually am."
Local playhouses are crowded with folks who'll happily dispute Gaston's humble claims. The actress, who opens this week in a local production of On Golden Pond, is -- according to some of our best-known stage names -- an inspiration. Against her will, Gaston has been cast as the heroine of her own story; the theater doyenne who overcame a debilitating illness and returned to the stage to collect great notices -- not long after she'd been written off as dead.
"It's a horrible thing to say, but a lot of people really did think Jackie was dead," according to actress and theater publicist Laura Durant. "Everyone knew she had this horrible illness, and then no one heard from her."
Durant is referring to Gaston's ongoing battle with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that brings on seizures, swollen joints and extreme fatigue. In the early 1990s, Gaston -- whose Copperstate Players helped launch the careers of big-deal thespians like Bob Sorenson, Linda DeArmond, Robyn Allen and Cathy Dresbach -- was diagnosed with the disease, which she'd been battling for two years.
"Doctors tend to be unsympathetic to the symptoms of lupus," Gaston says, "and by the time they figured out what was wrong with me, I was pretty much incapacitated." She spent the next two years flat on her back; once she was able to get up, the actress had to learn to walk again.
"It was pretty dicey there for a while," admits Gaston, who's amused at the rumors of her death. "I certainly hadn't heard I'd died," she says with a throaty laugh. "I stayed away from everyone in the theater scene, because the thought of being seen in a wheelchair was daunting. I had to learn to walk all over again. I didn't want anyone to witness this."
Eight years after her diagnosis and well into her recovery, Gaston heard that friend and fellow actor Robyn Allen was preparing to direct a smallish production of The Lion in Winter. "I thought, 'Oh, God. If I'm going to die on the stage, this is the show I want to die in!'" Gaston says. Despite the risk to her health, Gaston convinced Allen she was well enough to work again, and her acclaimed appearance as Eleanor of Aquitaine was followed by leads in three other shows, none of which led to her demise. She's pleased (and a little surprised) to be in demand again, but admits that stage appearances exhaust her.
"I have to curtail the rest of my life to be in a show. There's a danger with lupus; if you go beyond certain limits, you can trigger a flare-up, and end up very sick again if you're not careful. But acting is what I do. It's worth it."
Gaston's lupus is in remission but still has an impact on her life. "It's still there, but I can live with it," she says. "There's pain and fatigue, and it's hard to get through rehearsals sometimes. The cast babies me." She admits to having had "a couple of seizures along the way, but never onstage during a performance. On the other hand, I've come off stage and fallen off a six-foot platform because I was going into a seizure. But I got my scene done!"
She'd rather not dwell on her illness, and isn't keen on discussing her father's long-ago fling with Tallulah Bankhead, either. "Well, I'd like to say it's not true, but I can't," she sighs, merrily. "He later met my mother and then he became a minister, so I know he'd be unhappy that we're talking about this. But I do have a picture of him and Tallulah together, so there's no point in denying it."
Gaston would rather talk about her upcoming projects -- after On Golden Pond, she'll reprise her much-admired performance in a remount of last season's Dear Liar -- but doesn't much like references to her "comeback."
"When I did Lion, I was uncomfortable with all this talk about 'the veteran returns to the stage,'" she says. "It's nice that people took some inspiration from my return [to theater], but I came back because I love what I do. I'm tough, but I don't think I'm particularly remarkable. I was off the stage for a long time, and it felt like I didn't exist. Now I'm back, and I feel differently. That's all."
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