Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sally Struthers stars as Mrs. Peacock in 'Clue' at Gateway

By Daniel Bubbeo
daniel.bubbeo@newsday.com   dbubbeo1014

Sally Struthers is feeling mm, mm good these days, especially when she's told "Soup's on" in “Clue” at The Gateway in Bellport. As Mrs. Peacock in the mystery farce that runs through April 16, there’s a moment that calls for her to slurp on some shark-fin soup, much to the horror of the other dinner guests. Struthers takes that simple gag and turns it into a laugh riot that literally goes from soup to nuts. “There’s about two sentences in the script where I talk about the soup, but I wrote about 10 more sentences and am having a lot of fun choking on the piece of the shark fin,” she says. On the first day of rehearsal earlier this month, she Struthers came up with the idea to take a piece of cardboard and cut it out like a shark’s fin. It’s just one of many touches she’s brought to the role in Sandy Rustin’s stage adaptation of the cult 1985 movie based on the popular board game. Initially, Struthers wasn’t game for “Clue” having played Mrs. Peacock when the play premiered at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 2017. Since then, though, the script had been revised and Struthers decided that she could put a new spin on the character. “The last time I just played her with my own voice, but like a little doddering old lady. This time I wanted to do it a little different. So, I decided that Mrs. Peacock would talk in this South Carolina voice that makes her sound so involved with herself,” she says, slipping into a coquettish drawl that would melt so much butter on a Southern-style biscuit. It was a take that the director, Larry Raben, hadn’t imagined for the character, but loved the second he heard it. “The best part about Sally is that she is always paying attention. With everything going on in the room, her comedic instincts are so strong that if you just give her a short leash, she will color within the lines, but she’ll bring more colors from the crayon box than you can imagine,” Raben says. At 75, Struthers still possesses the girlish exuberance she brought to her Emmy-winning role as Gloria Stivic in “All in the Family” (1971-78), and she has no problem keeping up with the rest of the “Clue” cast in the lightning-quick show. “Farces only work when they’re fast-paced,” she says. “So, it’s exhausting in the rehearsal process and elating when you get to performance.” Adding to the challenge has been working on the elaborate set, which consists of three separate units that rotate clockwise and counterclockwise to reveal different rooms in the mansion. “The cast has painfully learned that I am painfully linear and things have to go in order for me or I get really mixed up,” Struthers says. “Jumping on and off of these turntables is not exactly what I call in order. I get so turned around and befuddled I don’t even know where I am anymore.”

Round up the unusual suspects: Sally Struthers, in blue, as Mrs. Peacock, and the rest of the cast in “Clue” at The Gateway in Bellport. Credit: Jeff Bellante

If Struthers was hesitant about joining “Clue,” her co-star, James Taylor Odom, who is a force of nature as Wadsworth the butler, jumped at the chance once he heard she was on board. The two became fast friends when they worked together in 2018 in the musical “Grumpy Old Men” at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. On the first day of rehearsal for “Clue,” Odom had with him a memento that Struthers had given him from “Grumpy Old Men” — a fireman’s badge that she had found in an antique shop. Unlike that show, in which they had little stage time together, in “Clue” they are together for nearly the entire length of the show, something Odom is relishing. “I was witness to her genius and creativity and playfulness five years ago in ‘Grumpy Old Men,’ but it was a different beast, a different kind of show. In this, we’re in it the whole time playing off one another and it’s a team.”

From left, Sally Struthers, Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner in the classic sitcom "All in the Family." Credit: Bettmann Archive


“Clue” is just the latest adventure for Struthers in a career that has spanned more than five decades. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Struthers was stage struck from the time she was a child, acting in plays during elementary and high school before heading to California's Pasadena Playhouse of College Arts. “It was a three-year college, and it was padlocked shut in my second year there by the IRS because the people that ran the school let it get in terrible tax arrears,” she recalls. “So I didn’t get to go the third year, and as you can see it terribly hurt my career.” In 1970, she landed a role on the short-lived series “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour” and also shared a torrid scene with Jack Nicholson in the film “Five Easy Pieces.” One year later came her career-defining moment when she was cast as Gloria Stivic in producer Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.” The groundbreaking sitcom, which premiered on Jan. 12, 1971, focused on a bigoted blue-collar worker, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), and his family and tackled such hot-button issues as bigotry, rape, homosexuality, the Vietnam War and menopause, Struthers and her castmates were fearful the show wouldn’t even last for two episodes, let alone nine seasons. On the day of the show's premiere, Lear and director John Rich informed the cast that CBS affiliates had brought in extra staff to handle blowback from viewers. "They said if there are too many angry phone calls, you won’t have a job tomorrow. So enjoy, and watch it with your family and friends because we don’t know if it will still be on the air tomorrow,” Struthers recalls. As it turned out, there were many tomorrows, with the show still living on in reruns. “The next morning when we showed up at CBS," Struthers says, "they said they got millions of calls from all over the country, but they were all ‘What was that? We loved that. Is that coming back?’ There were very few angry calls. So we knew we were onto something.” Asked about her favorite “Family” memories, Struthers has two — the episode in which Gloria gave birth to baby Joey, and the season 2 flashback to Mike [Rob Reiner] and Gloria’s wedding. “Edith [Jean Stapleton] wanted to tell me about the facts of life and she couldn’t,” Struthers says. “And I had to keep filling in the blanks for her. And when we were done, I said, ‘Thanks Ma, that really helped.’ And she said, ‘Good,’ and she hadn’t told me anything. It was a precious moment.” Struthers has also attracted a new generation of fans thanks to her role as Lorelai Gilmore’s quirky neighbor, Babette, on TV’s “Gilmore Girls.” “I remember one time I was walking on a path in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and a mother and daughter came down the path and the daughter screamed, ‘Oh, that’s Babette!,’ and the mother screamed, ‘Oh, that’s Gloria!’ So it’s definitely a generational thing,” Struthers says.

James Taylor Odom, who plays Wadsworth and Sally Struthers reunited for "Clue." The two worked together in "Grumpy Old Men." Credit: Morgan Campbell


Though Struthers still pops up on television, theater has been her bread and butter over the past 10 years, including appearances on the Gateway stage in “9 to 5” (2012), “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (2015) and “Anything Goes” (2016). One of her favorite activities during her off-hours is to go antiquing in search of goodies from vintage perfume bottles to rare books, and even boots. “I bought something in an antique store about 40 years ago and I called my nephew in Los Angeles, who lives in my house with me, and I said please mail these to me so I can give them to James,” she says. “And Sally comes walking in with this massive box. I opened it up and there were these magnificent boots that could have been at least 150 years old,” Odom says. And they were a perfect fit to boot. Since working on “Clue,” Struthers says she has visited about five local antique shops (she was spotted at Remember Yesteryears Antique Center in Oakdale). “My business manager knows that’s what I like to do, so the people in this place are told to never hand me my paycheck at the end of the week. They’re to mail it to my business manager in Los Angeles or I would never come home with a dollar,” she jokes. And usually those shop visits wind up with someone inevitably asking for a photo with her, which has been an occupational hazard since “All in the Family.” “I have no privacy. I go grocery shopping at home or here and it becomes Sally’s running for office,” she says. “Everyone wants a picture and wants to shake my hand as I go down the aisle looking for tomato soup.” After “Clue,” Struthers plans to return to Los Angeles with the promise of work in film and TV after signing with an agent for the first time in 30 years. Still, it’s likely that if Gateway calls her back for a show, she’ll answer. “I usually tend to go back to where I’ve fallen in love with the people that run the place,” she says. “I’ve fallen in love with this theater, the grounds, the living situation. I leave here with such happy memories that if I’m lucky, they’ll invite me back.”