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Chris Rosenblulm: Return engagement: Helen Manfull back in action for upcoming production of ‘4,000 Miles’

Helen Manfull
Helen Manfull Photo provided

Helen Manfull remembers her disappointment.

She was 6 and at her first opera. The second act opened with a prologue played in front of the closed curtain.

Manfull was moved — but not by the scene. She cried, convinced that the curtain wouldn’t open onto a beautiful set as before.

“I wanted the magic,” she recalled.

She still does.

At 81, Manfull continues a lifelong love affair with the stage. Her latest romance features her starring in Fuse Productions’ rendition of the play “4,000 Miles” Feb. 19-22 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center.

Over the years, the Penn State professor emerita of theater’s acting, directing, teaching and writing have won her widespread admiration and made her a revered figure — the grande dame of the local drama community.

She’s working her first full production after a long hiatus, though in 2011 for the Nittany Valley Shakespeare Festival, she directed the late Susan Riddiford-Shedd in Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.”

Talk of returning to under the lights, however, brings a ready quip.

“I would say I didn’t know I ever left,” she said.

Her illustrious career has included several books on drama, memorable stage roles across the country and film and television appearances. In State College, she’s also famous for her influential Theatre 100 class, one of the university’s most popular courses during its 23-year run until 1996.

She formed her Theatre 100 Company, graduate students who demonstrated acting techniques by performing scenes from plays read by her class. It’s still going strong.

Every year, she and the company sparked the imagination of a couple thousand students.

“She introduced them to the art of the theater and the magical, transformative potential within our art form,” Dan Carter, director of the Penn State School of Theatre, said in an email.

“When students went to see a play, it was often because Helen told them to. When they discussed those plays, Helen was often present, either literally or, metaphorically, sitting on the shoulders of those doing the talking.”

For decades, Carter said, Manfull “was — for all intents and purposes — the face of Penn State theater.”

“Helen was the consummate teacher/artist,” Carter said. “Not only was she a marvel in the classroom, she remains a visionary director and continues to be an awe-inspiring actor.”

Manfull describes herself in simpler terms.

“I’m still really nothing but a stage-struck kid,” she said.

She played her first role at 8 in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, Her mother made costumes for the local community theater, and Manfull would trail along. That led to being invited to be little Mary in Claire Booth Luce’s comedy “The Women.”

Walt Disney, though, got her hooked on acting four years earlier. She saw “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and that was it.

“I don’t remember this, but my mother said I would only answer if I was addressed as Snow White,” Manfull said.

In high school and college, she tried to resist the stage’s pull. She thought of becoming a biologist but, in the end, could not ignore basic chemistry. A Woodrow Wilson Fellowship took her to the University of Minnesota, where she earned graduate degrees, met her husband, Lowell, and fully embraced her craft.

She came to Penn State in the mid-1960s, teaching part time while caring for two young sons before joining the faculty as an assistant professor in 1973. Motherhood siphoned her away from shows for a while, but when she appeared as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina in “You Can’t Take it with You,” she was back for good — starting a long string of masterful performances that built her stature as an actor’s actor.

“Helen has that quality that many true artists possess; she has a tremendous sense of responsibility as well as a strong urge to ‘hold a mirror up to nature,’ ” Carter said.

“She is seemingly fearless when it comes to her art, and I have tremendous respect and affection for her.”

Manfull retired from Penn State in 1996, returning at Carter’s invitation after her husband’s death in 2004 to teach for four more years. Looking back on her academic career, she views her Theatre 100 class with pride.

“I adored it,” she said. “I never felt I got it quite right. I always kept working to get it right.”

One constant was her introduction. At the start of semesters, she always read from “The Dramatic Imagination,” a treatise on stagecraft by Robert Edmond Jones, an innovative American set and lighting designer.

Jones pictured a scene where a prehistoric hunter, while sitting around a cave fire and telling about the day’s battle with a lion, suddenly decides to jump up and pantomime the struggle.

In her living room, Manfull’s voice projected as clearly and strongly as it must have done year after year before her students.

“Thousands of years have passed, but we are still affected by this thing in our midst that fuses us, all our various moods into one common mood. We are still lost in wonder before this magical art of theater,” she read from a yellowed page.

“It really is a kind of magic, this art. We can call it glamour or poetry or romance, but that doesn’t explain it. In some mysterious way, these old, simple, ancestral moods still survive in us. An actor can make them live again for a while. We become children once more. We believe.”

The mystery hasn’t dulled for her. She’s still a believer, still in wonder of theater’s power for actors and audiences alike, still waiting for the curtain to open on more vagaries of the heart.

“Her acting is so organic, so real, and it feels effortless,” said Richard Biever, her latest director. “When you watch her, you just feel like you’re watching reality. There’s no sense of acting there.”

She’s not ready for her final bow yet, not with an active equity card and characters out there to inhabit.

One of her auditions in recent years was for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher.” The role of Jean du Pont eluded her, but as Manfull knows better than most, the show must go on.

“Vanessa Redgrave got the part — no shame in that,” she said. “Heck, she needs work, too.”

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