Rolling with the hunches

Photo by Mark Galvin

Having already worked for the Walnut Street Theatre five times ahead of 2016’s quest to secure involvement in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” Karen Peakes suspected she might not receive receptivity for her admiration of the Neil Simon work. Knowing she would maximize the opportunity to portray three characters if the frequent employer were to choose her, the former South Philly resident indeed impressed the powers that be and is entering the second week of displaying her range and regard for comedy through the lauded venue.

“It’s just so much fun because of the diversity of the roles,” the South Jersey resident said ahead of last Thursday’s opening of playing Elaine Navazio, Bobbi Michele, and Jeanette Fisher. “Finding their respective voices has been a special process, and the whole experience has been interesting since I’d say they represent three extremes of my own personality.”

She and fellow Walnut Street Theatre-tenured peer Fran Prisco are helping the playhouse to showcase its affinity for Simon, a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy and Tony Award winner, through Feb. 5. In enhancing the site’s Independence Studio on 3 slate, they are addressing the search for love during the sexual revolution, with the overseer’s decision to have one individual embody the women particularly piquing Peakes’ interest.

“I believe it’s a better play if done this way, as I think it gives the woman a bit more power and definitely a greater chance to get at the heart of what the male character, Barney, is looking for,” the actress said of the 1960s-set text. “Perhaps it also strives to give us a sense of what we’d like in our lives, too.”

Promotional material for the work, which is running concurrently with Simon’s “Laughter On The 23rd Floor” as part of the theater’s 208th anniversary season, states that Prisco’s part involves conveying the timidity of a married man who is looking for “something new and different” and who ends up “finding himself in the same situation, again and again!” That yearning for carefree exchanges becomes especially comedic when Barney’s potential partners prove quite a challenge to comprehend.

“They’re really an interesting mix,” Peakes said of the trio, with variations in their morals making for occasions for her executions to have added depth. “I like how they speak to the complexity of human nature and how that can influence considerations of the durability of what we have and the burdens that we can face when we think that’s not fulfilling enough.”

While she reveres Simon, whose connection to the Walnut Street Theatre includes the 1999 world premiere of “Hotel Suite,” for his ability to inspire audiences to think about their situations and journeys, Peakes posits that he is even more adept at encouraging the appreciation of comedy for its own sake. At a time when people strive to infuse meaning into everything, she likes that he can so easily “give people a night off from their lives.”

“It’s great to look to say something smart and compelling in your work, but there’s value in just helping people to laugh and take a break,” Peakes said. “I know I’m loving the opportunity to be a part of this reminder of how fun it can be to let go of your cares for a couple hours.”

The happy hire recalled that enthusiasm for wanting to enjoy diversions via a text came courtesy of theater exposure while growing up in Baltimore. From pretending to accept an Academy Award to seeing shows in her home state’s Pumpkin Theatre, Peakes’ childhood offered ample proof that stage-based efforts could come to help her to carve out a career.

“I absolutely loved so much of what I came in contact with because it was so beautiful to discover what the writers wanted to say and teach us about,” the alumnus of DeSales University said. “At times, for anyone, I’d contend, it can be tough when you’re starting as a performer to know where you fit or might fit, but I think that the more you take in, the more you understand that theater makes you pretty diverse.”

Thanks in large part to her mother, a longtime English teacher, Peakes grew fond of William Shakespeare, and it was through the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival that her life and love for the stage began to blossom, as she met future husband Ian Merrill Peakes at the annual celebration that her alma mater hosts.

“We moved to New York for, I think, just under a year, and he just kept getting work in Philadelphia and building area connections, and I had some connections, too, from the festival,” she said. “It took some convincing, but we moved to Philadelphia and enjoyed our existence as South Philly residents.”

With Bella Vista and Queen Village as their haunts, the now Garden State-based performers came into contact with a supportive community that greatly appealed to her enthusiasm for enjoying an existence filled with fraternizing. She especially revered her contemporaries’ ability to foster “normal lives” that included not only explorations of their art but also interest in having families, which she and her Barrymore Award-winning spouse have done as the parents of eight-year-old Owen. They have easily made their boy proud through the accumulation of well-received credits, with the matriarch, who also has narrated more than 20 titles for Brilliance Audio, landing assignments through Arden Theatre Co.; Ambler’s Act II; The Folger in Washington, D.C; Malvern’s People’s Light; and New Hampshire’s Peterborough Players.

“Our lives are a roller coaster,” the Barrymore nominee said of the frequent travel involving in bringing scripts to life. “However, this is the path we’ve chosen, and, yes, there are ups and downs, but we are highly fortunate to be able to pursue these aspirations.”

Noting that not a second ends up wasted, Peakes will soon after the Walnut Street Theatre run head out on a national tour to back “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” the seventh such show by the theatrical pioneer to extend beyond Philadelphia’s confines. The journey will find her traveling along the East Coast, with stops in California and New Mexico also on the docket.

“It will be my first tour, so I’m thankful for the chance to extend my connection with this great show,” Peakes said. “There will be some challenges, but, again, I’m blessed to be in this position to explore my craft a bit more.” SPR

“Last of the Red Hot Lovers”

Playing through Feb. 5 at

The Walnut Street Theatre,

825 Walnut St.

Tickets: $30-$35


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