“To watch Linda Williams Janke slip from the sweet serenity of Sissy Jupe to the bouncing absurdities of meddlesome Mrs. Sparsit,” a review of a 1990 four-actor stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times at the old Portland Repertory Theatre declared, “is to enjoy acting as an illusionary art.”
“Janke’s strength of character and biting, intelligent wit dominate the proceedings,” another notice from the same year, this one for a New Rose Theatre production of Alan Ayckbourn’s tragi-farce Woman in Mind, asserted. “She seduces us to Susan’s way of looking at the world; she seems much the most reasonable character of the bunch, even if she talks to imaginary people.”
From the 1970s through the early 2000s, talking to imaginary people – becoming imaginary people, and giving them startlingly vivid voice – is what Janke did on Portland stages, with nuance, wit, intelligence, compassion, and sometimes almost frightening concentration. She was a star, not in a Hollywood sense, but in a genuine and time-honored actorly sense: a performer who dug fiercely into the words and meanings of great writers and made them flesh; an actor who stood out and yet always was attuned to the ensemble onstage and the overall shape of the play.
Janke died on Friday, March 18, in a hospice room in Battle Ground, Washington. She was 78. “Death came gently after a month-long battle with the cancerous mass discovered in her brain only weeks before she entered hospice,” her family wrote in an obituary notice.
In 2003 Janke, who spent most of her life in Portland, moved to Oysterville, on the southern Washington coast, with her husband, Peter Janke. She was born June 22, 1943 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Not quite a year later, on June 6, 1944, her father died while parachuting into Normandy as part of the D-Day Invasion. In 1949 her mother remarried, to Frank Eichhorn, and the family lived for a while in Salem and then Portland, where Linda entered first grade at the old Our Lady of Sorrows School and continued through high school at Marycrest Academy.
“Her memories of Catholic schooling included her spur-of-the-moment role in convincing then-candidate John F. Kennedy to come speak to the girls at Marycrest,” Janke’s family wrote. “She touched JFK on the shoulder, told him her parents would vote for him, and became a lifelong Democrat, but nothing at Marycrest would have a more lasting impact on her life than landing the role of Madame Arcati in her sophomore year and making her debut on stage in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.”
Blithe Spirit sparked a love for the stage and for performing in the works of great writers, from Coward and Ayckbourn to Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Lee Blessing, and more. Over the course of more than forty productions at theaters ranging from Portland Rep and New Rose to Profile, Artists Rep, Portland Center Stage and its predecessor Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Portland, Portland Civic Theatre, Portland State University’s lauded summer stock program in its glory days under the direction of Jack Featheringill, San Diego Rep, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and others, she performed with distinction.
As a Portland theater reviewer through much of her career, I saw Janke perform many times, spoke with her a few times, and reviewed her performances many times. Almost always, in her performances, she took me to someplace I hadn’t anticipated. Always she helped me understand why she made the actorly decisions she made. From moment to moment her head and heart were intimately engaged with the audience, the story, and her fellow actors in a concentrated make-believe that seemed, for its duration, very, very real.
Actors are in a sense split: one thing onstage and another in their “real” lives, and although the two of necessity overlap, they are not the same. For all that I was familiar with her onstage personae, I didn’t really know Janke, and so I asked one of her closest friends – Victoria Pohl, who as Victoria Parker or Victoria Parker-Pohl performed many times with her onstage – to talk a bit about Linda the performer and Linda the friend.
“Linda was a formidable stage partner,” Pohl said, “laser focused, so well prepared – her homework was incredible; she obviously worked out every detail of her character, body, mind, and soul. The text was the key – she studied it like a bible. And yet she was capable of being in the moment in performance with us as if she had no clue what was about to happen. I love that about her, the immediacy onstage.
“There were times, though, in comedies especially, that we couldn’t look each other in the eye onstage because of the goofiness of the moment; it was the same for Scott Parker – the three of us, so enjoying the humor of a piece we couldn’t look at each other as the scene unfolded – always ready to get offstage and laugh: What the Butler Saw, The Misanthrope, Hay Fever, Arsenic and Old Lace. And then there were the bloopers – most hilarious in more serious pieces. We LOVED the bloopers; there are many classic stories we’ve repeated down the years, still laughing as if they’d happened yesterday.”
A lot of Janke’s roles were in American classics, undertaken at a time when many Portland theaters championed the belief that a great play begins but does not end with a distinctive script, and that great plays are open to repeated interpretations. Janke performed in plays including Miller’s All My Sons (for which she won a Drammy Award); O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten (as Josie, one of her favorite roles, in a New Rose production with Steven Clark Pachosa and Scott Parker) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Blessing’s Independence (“Janke’s performance as a kind of monster-mother is subtle and effective, creating a sense of claustrophobia while eluding the trap of Mommie Dearest overstatement”); Albee’s A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women; The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s moving ensemble piece on the murder of the gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath; and Jerry Sterner’s business satire Other People’s Money.
She did the Brits and Irish, too, from Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen to Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan to the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (“a marvelous portrait of a ‘sinful woman’ who had a great sense of self-respect”), and even the Hungarian-born Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman.
All of it came in addition to, or in partnership with, a rich private life: For instance, she and Peter lived for years on Peacock Lane, Portland’s celebrated “Christmas street.” Pohl spoke to the personal Linda, too, sometimes in present tense, as if Janke were still in the room, or a phone call away: “As a friend, a best friend, she is everything a best friend needs to be: there for me always, enfolding and loving and fun and wise. Linda is a person you can turn to at any moment for comfort or advice, sometimes the talking-to you knew you had coming, always with love, always. Her onstage dignity and refinement belied the silliness to which she was prone. Her laugh is spoken of by a parade of people as a shining treasure to see and hear.
“Linda was so much fun! She celebrated with jubilation, and loved a party. Indeed, at a party at Jack Featheringill’s when I was nine months pregnant, we got laughing so hard I went into labor and had my youngest daughter the very next day. Her own parties were sublime, with tables laden with scrumptious home-cooked foods – she was a fantastic host and cook.”
Janke excelled at O’Neill. And for me, a memorable 2005 performance at Artists Rep in Miller’s American classic Death of a Salesman stands out for her extraordinary work as a soloist and an ensemble player, helping to open up the play’s multiple meanings and make everyone onstage better. Playing Linda Loman to the outstanding Allen Nause’s salesman Willy, she was, I wrote, “in every way Nause’s match as Linda, at once daunting and embracing. Linda is unconditional in her love for Willy, and Janke’s intelligent warmth embraces the entire production. If we didn’t know the play so well, and if Janke weren’t so good, double-casting her as Willy’s on-the-road floozy might have been a mistake. But we do, and she is. The result is a ripple of understanding: Willy the philanderer is really Willy the lonely wanderer, aching for the comfort of home.”
From the beginning the greatness of the play, and of Janke’s fusing in it of the verbal and nonverbal to create an intimate and compelling whole, shone through:
“Eight lines into the monumental and enthralling astonishment that is Arthur Miller’s crowning achievement, the great American delusionary Willy Loman crumbles beneath the weight and wonder of his own failure.
“’I’m tired to the death,’ he says, slumped and too weary to bother with pretending. ‘I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.’
“Twelve lines later, amid a rumble of complaints about broken-down Studebakers and falling arches, Willy’s wife wordlessly replies. Slowly, intimately, she removes Willy’s shoes and tenderly massages his feet.
“I know you’re tired, Linda Loman’s touch says. I know you hurt. I’m here. I’ll comfort you.
“Here, in these two moments that tumble out almost before the play’s begun, are the seeds of everything that follows: the wearing-down and casual abandonment of the American dreamer, and the dreamer’s saving grace, which may not be enough.
“A third thing, too: the rising joy of rediscovery that lifts the audience as it witnesses this ritual of humiliation and defeat. It’s the touch of magic.”
In light of that touch of magic, it seems fitting to leave the last words to Pohl. “We all wanted to be Linda,” she said. “She was the ultimate in everything she did. Most of all, her love, compassion, dignity, silliness, sense of humor and glee – she LOVED life, loved everything, every country she visited, and there were dozens; she brought positivity into experience, any conversation. Beyond her skills as an actor, these are the things we’ll most remember her by.”