Profile: Madeleine Ashe’s stage comeback continues

A few months ago, Petaluma’s Madeleine Ashe popped down to Novato to audition for the role of Linda Lohman in Arthur Miller’s iconic masterpiece “Death of a Salesman.” She knew she would be reading for the part with actor Joe Winkler, whose stage work, she now admits, she was unfamiliar with. To say the least, the audition went well.

“I left thinking, ‘I so hope I get this part!’?” recalls Ashe. “Because I really want to work with this guy!”

Jumping ahead - she got the part.

“Death of a Salesman” opened on Feb. 2 at Novato Playhouse to critical raves, with Ashe and Winkler drawing particularly strong praise. The play was directed by Petaluman Carl Jordan.

It’s all especially satisfying for Ashe, as there was a time, not that long ago, when she had basically retired from acting, and wasn’t sure she’d ever take to the stage again. This despite having earned a degree in acting, and coming from a theatrical family.

Ashe was born in Sydney, Australia, to a British mother and an American father (who’d been stationed in the South Pacific during WWII). After the war, he moved to Sydney.

“Both of my parents were stage and radio actors in Australia,” she says. “And my mother was part of a Gilbert and Sullivan company there in Sydney.” This, she points out, was in the 1950s, before television had come to Australia. “When T.V. did finally come to Sydney, both of my parents realized it was the end of their careers, so we packed up and moved to Hollywood.”

She was 3 years old at the time.

In L.A., Ashe’s parents found work in the movies, and ironically enough, television.

“They landed parts in shows like “Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and lots and lots of westerns,” Ashe says. “My mother was an incredible horsewoman. She used to take all of the actors out and show them how to ride, because in the 60s, in Hollywood, there were so many westerns being shot that if you couldn’t work with horses, you couldn’t get work.”

Her father died when she was 10, and soon after her mother relocated to San Francisco, where Ashe discovered her own passion for acting. After high school, she majored in theater at San Diego State University, then spent some time in Los Angeles pursuing acting gigs while paying the bills with temp jobs. The things she learned during that time have proven to be instrumental, she now realizes.

“Doing theatre,” she says, “gives you a skill set at being able to pick up new abilities quickly, because acting is all about being thrown into a role and then making quick decisions confidently. That’s temp work, too. So I did pretty well.”

After marrying and having the first of two children, her newly growing family moved to Petaluma, where Ashe quickly made the decision to give up acting and just concentrate on her role as mother. Eventually, she was able to have some vicarious theater experience when her daughters began to do shows with the Young Rep program at Cinnabar, where she began to volunteer, then work in the box office. Eventually, she was hired as the company’s finance director.

“All of that temp work I’d done paid off again,” she says, “since so much of it had to do with bookkeeping.” She’s now been there ten years. “I love working at Cinnabar,” she adds. “It’s just such a wonderful environment, a place where people step up when they need to, and support each other.”

During all of the time she was raising her kids, she now says, she never felt sad at having stepped away from acting herself, even though she was essentially surrounded by theater.

“I was involved in my kids’ lives so deeply,’ she says. “And I loved that. I knew that someday, after my kids were grown, I could maybe go back to performing, if the right opportunity presented itself.”

That opportunity came from Sonoma County actor-director Sheri Lee Miller, whom Ashe had become friends with at San Diego State. Miller was directing a play at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, and she asked Ashe to take on a small but juicy part in “Talking With,” by Jane Martin. Ashe said yes, performing a 5-minute monologue as a woman describing her many tattoos. That was January of 2011. It was, Ashe says, her first time on stage in 23 years.

“It was a great little role, and a great opportunity to get back on stage again,” she says. “It was such a good experience, and after that, the opportunities just kept coming.”

Over the last seven years, she has appeared in Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “La Cage aux Folles,” and most recently “Man of La Mancha,” all at Cinnabar (most of them directed by Miller), plus Christopher Durang’s “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” at Main Stage West.

Ashe, it is clear, is on a roll. And it doesn’t look like she’s going to be stopping any time soon. Though she still has one more weekend of playing Linda in “Salesman,” she’s already begun work on her next play, the drama “By the Water,” opening in March at Spreckels, in the very same theater space where he acting career sprang back to life seven years ago. The play, by Sharyn Rothstein, tells the story of a Staten Island family deciding whether or not to rebuild after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The story has special resonance for Ashe, since she has many friends who are in a similar situation following last October’s fires.

“It’s a powerful play,” she says, “and I think it will really touch a lot of people.”

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