With triple talent in acting, singing and dance, Presila Quinby in 1978 arrived in Ashland, performed with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and started up PJQ, a locally famous quartet with her brother Jim Quinby and lover Paul Jenny — then in 1984 went for the big time, acting on Broadway in “A Secret Garden” and “Meet Me in St Louis” — and then, married to musician Bil Leonhart, came “home” in 2000 to Ashland.
It’s been a rich life and now, at 64, the ever-gorgeous Quinby is acting in what may be her last role here (she’s too expensive locally, as a member of Actor’s Equity Union, plus they’re moving to France next year) in a two-woman drama about our bitterly polarized society called “Walter Cronkite is Dead.”
Directed by Jeannine Grizzard of Ashland Contemporary Theater, “Cronkite” opens Sunday at Ashland Community Center. The play features two women at opposite ends of the political spectrum (Quinby is the liberal) stranded at Reagan National Airport in Washington and forced to sit, drink wine together and eventually get relaxed enough to start being real — and, lo, finding each other to be human beings.
Quinby was raised near Philadelphia in a large family, most of whom had musical or acting talent and would pick up an array of musical instruments Dad brought home. He was a Naval officer raised in Portland and San Francisco and Mom, trained in opera and ballet, was the first female physics graduate of Oregon State University, who went on to engineer a device that repelled enemy mines that were magnetically attracted to ships.
In Quinby’s youth, it was rare for a woman to have talent singing, dancing and acting but, “The actor is really me. I can use everything else for this. Together, they gave me state of the art tools for my toolkit … I discovered acting here in Ashland and realized ‘this is where I’m heading.’”
To develop that skill, acting, Quinby says she knew she couldn’t do it at OSF but had to try for Broadway and, since she was 30 then, knew she couldn’t do it later. Stepping up on stage on Broadway the first time was “nerve wracking,” but she’s thankful that “I’ve never been nervous. I’ve always had a kinda slow personal tempo.”
Her off-Broadway roles were in “The Witch,” “Lady Liberty” and “Hexen.” Back in Ashland she acted in “Steel Magnolias,” “Manchurian Candidate,” “Les Miserable,” “Sweeny Todd” and many others — at all area stages.
The pair have a spot on the French Riviera for the first year, but although Quinby speaks fluent French, she won’t be acting on any stage in that country, she says, because they insist on you being born there. So the future (and potential health issues for the couple) make it less than crystal-clear, except for one thing, “our cat and two dogs are absolutely coming with us.”
Grizzard said she made a long search all summer to find “a play that was both timely and built around a leading lady of Presila Quinby’s stature and gifts. She and her husband, Bill, plan to move to France next year and her usual employers stopped using Equity actors. When she told me this, I realized she would not have an opportunity to say goodbye to her fans. I felt she needed a farewell show.”
The play, by Joe Calarco, “is the kind of story that could happen in Medford or at any airport or waiting room. A fierce thunderstorm has grounded all flights and two women of opposite political stripes are stranded. They share a table, some wine, their experiences and opinions about community, culture and motherhood,” notes Grizzard.
“Liberal Margaret and conservative Patty (Elizabeth Suzanne) find unexpected layers of mutual understanding as the hours roll by. Their conversation is funny, difficult, deeply revealing and astonishingly frank. Americans’ sense of shared reality may be as gone as Walter Cronkite’s Evening News, but this insightful comedy echoes his equanimity and wisdom about what we can learn from each other when all the shouting stops.”
Tickets are $18 at the door, Paddington Station, Grocery Outlet and www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org. Tickets purchased online have reserved seats up front.
Shows start at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way, and at 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 3, Nov. 10, Nov. 17; and at 2 p.m. Sunday Nov. 4, Nov. 11, Nov. 18 at the Community Center.
There is a special matinée at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Community Center, and a matinée at 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at Grizzly Peak Winery.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer