by Len Lear
Nancy Morris Bennett may be like the character in the old L’il Abner cartoons who was always walking under a dark cloud, even on the sunniest days. (Younger readers might have to Google “L’il Abner.”) In two separate instances, for example, a huge tree fell on her car, once in Bryn Mawr and once at Haverford College. Fortunately, she was not in the car on either occasion.
But then there was the time that she was “under the tree,” metaphorically speaking, when it fell. Nancy, whose age is “eight years and counting, in dog years,” is one of the busiest community theater actresses in the region. Since 2005 Nancy has performed in 20 productions for nine community theaters in the Greater Philadelphia area. This includes two performances for Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill — in “Last Night of Ballyhoo” in 2010 and “Kimberly Akimbo” in 2011. She was also in one film, “Road to Pecumsecah,” in 2007.
Nancy’s performances often stick in the mind like a favorite song that reverberates over and over again. But her most memorable performance by far was the one she did not complete. It was on June 16, 2012, at Old Academy Theater in East Falls, when she was playing the legendary starring role of Blanche DuBois, who “depended on the kindness of strangers” in Tennessee Williams’ classic drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In the play Blanche, a fragile, aging beauty whose Southern brio tries to mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur, moves to New Orleans to live with her loving and pregnant sister, Stella, and her brutish, physically and emotionally abusive brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, who was famously portrayed in both the play and movie of “Streetcar” by Marlon Brando. (The fabulous current movie, “Blue Jasmine,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is a contemporary, loose retelling of the “Streetcar” plot.) Blanche’s despair circles around her future like a grenade, shooting emotional shrapnel everywhere.
As Nancy was running in high heels across the stage after the Kowalski character, she slipped in a puddle of faux beer that had been spilled on the floor. As a result, her body turned into a projectile, flying up in the air and coming down with a thud on her left side. She tried to get up but was unable to do so. In searing pain, she cried out, “I need help!” Some audience members no doubt thought at first that this was all part of the play, but they soon realized otherwise.
Someone called 911, and a fire department ambulance soon arrived at the theater and rushed Nancy to the emergency room at Einstein Northern Medical Center, where Nancy’s husband, Richard, just happens to be an M.D. on the staff. The diagnosis was that the beautiful actress had broken her pelvis in four places as well as her sacrum.
“Here I was in the emergency room wearing a tiara and a Southern-inspired dress with big bows,” said Nancy. “Quite a sight. They gave me morphine, and I spent the night in the emergency room.”
Bennett wound up spending one week in the hospital, followed by two weeks at Moss Rehabilitation Center. Three months after the accident Nancy was on crutches but back to leading a normal life. The fact that she was physically fit helped facilitate her recovery. Before the accident she had been jogging three miles a day. “I still have pain today,” she said, “and I do not feel the way I did before the accident, but I can live a normal life … For a year and a half, I had no sense of taste or smell. I once had a rotten turkey in the car and did not even know it.”
Nancy was injured about three-quarters of the way through the third performance of “Streetcar” at Old Academy Theater. There were seven more performances scheduled, but they were all canceled, and refunds were made because unlike Broadway or professional theaters in downtown Philly, community theaters virtually never have understudies for leading roles.
On top of everything else, Nancy was devastated “because Blanche DuBois was the greatest role I have ever had, and we had already received so many favorable reviews. I love Blanche, and I hated to lay her to rest!”
Fortunately for Nancy, however, Old Academy Theater and director J.P.Parrella decided to reprise “Streetcar” one year after Nancy’s accident so audiences would have a chance to put the highbeams on Nancy and the American classic drama again. It played June 7 to 23 of this year, and both reviewers and audiences raved about the play and Nancy’s python-intense, clockwork-reliable performance.
The Local’s reviewer, Hugh Hunter, wrote in our June 13 issue: “The heart of the story is Blanche DuBois, played by Nancy Bennett, who shines. It is a difficult role to play because the character is vulnerable and tough at the same time … Most actresses who perform this role become melodramatic at some point, but Nancy Bennett does not hit a false note all night, and you feel as if you are watching Blanche DuBois herself. Bennett is that good.”
“I am so grateful that they did the play again,” said Nancy. “It was a gift to be able to revisit the role. I hope it was a sign of respect for me. I guess you could say I had closure. It was like getting back on the horse again. It was very cathartic in the big picture.”
Interestingly, Nancy started out aspiring to have a career as a singer, not an actress. When she was just 6, she won a talent competition in the Catskill Mountains, and she sang in a trio with her parents when she was in middle school. They performed for local synagogues and community organizations. (Her father was a cantor and an accountant.)
While attending Temple University, where she earned a B.A. in psychology with a minor in music (she also has a master’s degree in neuropsychology from Drexel University), the comely, slender 5-foot-3 blonde soprano sang four nights per week for a year at the Stadium Hilton. While in grad school, she also taught psychology at Drexel.
She sang professionally for over a decade with a jazz trio and as a pop singer in area lounges, including the lounge at the Philadelphia International Airport. “I realized that singing was also acting,” said Nancy, who transitioned to acting after a serious sinus condition sabotaged her singing career. She took classes with Walnut Street Theater and People’s Light and Theater and quickly “got the acting bug.” She also did TV commercials for local companies but did not begin getting theater roles until she was 40.
“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than being in the theater,” exclaimed Nancy. “I love the immediacy of the audience reaction. It is a great cognitive exercise and a great antidote to aging. And it is a great collaborative exercise with a group of people working together. I seem to play a lot of Southern women who are independent and assertive but also vulnerable and fragile. But I have also played a cursing truck driver … I have a soft voice, and one thing I love about Old Academy’s (small) theater is that you can be subtle and nuanced (unlike in a huge theater).”
Nancy, who also took two years of art education classes at the Barnes Museum and has been a docent there for about nine months, has been married to her husband, who comes to every play she is in, for 28 years. They have two daughters, Laura, 26, a culture critic for New Republic magazine, and Emily, 23, who works for a technology company in San Francisco. They also have a 15-year-old Bichon Frise named Luke.
“The beauty of community theater,” said Nancy, “is that you have something in common with the other people, and that is a passion for theater. The first thing I thought when I was injured was: ‘When can I get back to the stage and the community of actors?’ I’ve met some wonderful friends there … We all have dreams of what might have been, but it has been a nice ride for me.”