'Northern Exposure' veteran carves a niche in local theater scene

From the The Seattle Times, August 05, 1999 • Donated by Eddie.

by Misha Berson, Seattle Times theater critic

Scanning her five years as a regular on the locally shot TV series "Northern Exposure," actress Peg Phillips names a favorite episode. It was the one in which her character, a vigorous septuagenarian storekeeper named Ruth Anne, ran away with a motorcycle gang. [5.18 Fish Story]

"It took me two years to talk the producers into it, but we got Ruth Anne on a Harley," recalls Phillips, with her familiar good-humored cackle. "I never had so much fun!"

At age 80, Phillips is still having big fun, playing vivacious old-timers on such TV shows as "Touched by an Angel" and "Seventh Heaven." And between short jaunts to Hollywood, she's the impassioned artistic director of Woodinville Repertory Theatre, an aspiring acting troupe Phillips started in 1998.

Tonight, the Woodinville Rep launches its third production, a mounting of the romantic comedy "Bell, Book and Candle." And the cast includes Phillips, in her first stage appearance in more than a decade. She'll play Queenie, a ditzy old member of a coven of witches - one of whom falls in love with a mortal.

"I played Queenie 30 years ago in dinner theater," says Phillips. "She's so fluttery and nutty, such an old fool - a witch but not a very good one. It's a great little part." Mostly, though, Phillips has toiled backstage for her budding troupe - raising funds, hunting down theater space and actors, and trying to establish an artsy oasis in a sea of strip malls and housing developments. "I decided we were having a grand mall seizure around here," she cracks. "There was nothing to do in my town but buy things, so I decided to start a professional theater."

With a modest budget but strong community support, Phillips mounted the Rep's first show, "I Hate Hamlet!," last August in a "nice little 106-seat theater" in Woodinville's Leota Junior High School. "We sold out all eight performances," she says proudly, "with extra people sitting on the floor." Encouraged by their success, this spring the group staged the thriller "Deathtrap" in a vacant warehouse. It, too, sold out. So "Bell, Book and Candle," directed by Cornish College professor Hal Ryder, will run longer.

And Phillips plans to produce three shows next year, plus find the Rep a home. "We don't have a building yet, or the money to build with," she admits. "But we're going to create a theater in this area no matter how we do it." Phillips is a can-do lady, for sure. An Everett native, she lived in California a long period with her family, then divorced and moved back to Washington, working as an accountant to support her four children.

At 66, with kids grown (she now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren), Phillips turned her lifelong acting hobby into a full-time career. She became a drama student at theUniversity of Washington, but didn't finish her B.A. "because I started getting so much work.I did eight movies, with people like Shirley MacLaine and River Phoenix."

Then in 1989, along came "Northern Exposure." The new series followed the quirky residents of mythical Cicely, Alaska. At first, the producers couldn't find the right Ruth Ann. "I showed up at an audition, and right smack dab got the job," Phillips says. "It was marvelous. The writing was so good, and the directing. And the cast really became a family." Phillips still keeps in touch with her "Northern Exposure" cohorts.

After the series ended in 1995, most of them moved back to Los Angeles. But she stayed put in Woodinville. "It's been perfect. I live in my little 100-year-old house, tend my garden, and every month I just fly down to California, do a TV episode and fly home." There have been some tough times for Phillips in recent years. She lost a daughter to cancer, and suffered herself from a ruptured aorta. But her attitude remains upbeat, and her energy level is enviable. "I've had to slow down, but not to a standstill," she says cheerily, sounding a lot like Ruth Ann.

"You've got to live while you live. Can't sit around waiting to die."

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company


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