Spiritual Calling

A 10-minute video tribute of actor Elaine Welton Hill‘s work was shown at her recent memorial service (Hill died Nov. 15), culminating in an edited sequence of her curtain calls. Onscreen, Hill lowers her head repeatedly, each time draped in a different costume but always with her characteristic expressive eyes and vibrant red hair. At the end, the 500-plus guests rose to their feet at her final curtain call. ”It was very moving,“ said Nan McNamara, longtime friend of Hill and producing director of Actors Co-op, the professional Christian theater company Hill had been affiliated with since 1994. ”She had dynamic energy onstage . . . and preferred to play strong women. And she was one in real life.“

Hill tapped into that strength back in 1976, when she left the small Midwestern town of Wewoka, Oklahoma, with just $2,000 and a BFA in theater and ventured cross-country with a friend, determined to work as an actor in Hollywood. Hill did land roles in The Competition, with Richard Dreyfuss, and in the TV movie A Matter of Justice, in addition to a smattering of TV guest appearances; but she was most passionate about the stage, devoting 15 years to Theater East in addition to her time with Actors Co-op. Though Hill’s staging of A Doll‘s House earned her a Garland Award, she carved a niche for herself playing acerbic grandes dames, such as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and Irene Livingston in Light Up the Sky (for which she received an L.A. Drama Critics Circle nomination and a Drama-Logue Award). A deeply spiritual person, Hill combined her love for both acting and people as chairman of the Actors Fund of America, where she advocated for actors’ rights. ”She had the vision to see what could come from something with love,“ said her husband of 10 years, Mark Ferber. ”Whether it was gardening or refurbishing old chairs that she found at a garage sale . . . to the work she did with the Actors Fund fighting for health care and low-cost housing.“

During her three-year battle with ovarian cancer, Hill worked in four plays, two of which were musicals that requir-ed strenuous physical exertion. In her last production, Peter Shaffer‘s Lettice and Lovage, Hill carried the show, appearing in almost every scene despite chemo- and radiation therapy. ”She’d throw up offstage, then go back out,“ McNamara said. ”If I could have just a thumbnail of that strength . . .“

”She wanted to get a message across,“ added Ferber, ”particularly to women with ovarian cancer, but also to anyone with a catastrophic illness. ‘You don’t have to sit down and die. You can live a life and go on and do the things you love -- to a degree. It‘s not perfect, but you can be happy.’“#

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