Portland Chamber Orchestra Portland Oregon

Remembering Linda Williams Janke

The Portland stage star, 78, took classic turns in plays by Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Noel Coward, and G.B. Shaw.

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Linda Williams Janke with Steven Clark Pachosa in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” on a set designed by Jeff Seats, at New Rose Theatre. Photo courtesy Peter Janke

“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.

Linda Williams Janke at her home in Oysterville, Washington. Photo courtesy Peter Janke

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.

Janke and Valerie Stevens in Jane Martin’s “Keely and Du” at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey
Janke starring as Josie in O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Photo courtesy Peter Janke

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.”

Linda Williams Janke and Robert Ellenstein in Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Substance of Fire,” at Portland Repertory Theatre, 1992. Photo: Owen Carey

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.

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“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.”

Linda Williams Janke and Jay Randall Horenstein in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at New Rose Theatre. Photo courtesy Peter Janke

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.”

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."
Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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14 Responses

  1. I read this tribute to my departed wife through a flood of tears, and I can’t thank Bob Hicks enough for the eloquence and beauty of his words and memories about Linda’s performances on stage.

  2. Thank you Bob. Linda was not just brilliant but terribly kind and thoughtful. It’s hard to imagine the world without her.

  3. Thanks Bob. As we surround each other in love, this tribute lifts our spirits, and reminds us who we are as a community. Linda is love, and light, and finally free.

  4. Linda was such a wonderful, wonderful friend, and we know how she loved her acting career. Our only regret is that our friendship with Linda began late enough in our lives that we did not have the privilege to see her perform on stage. But, yes, laughing with her and Peter was such great fun! We love you, Linda! Chris and Shane Ryland, Seattle

  5. Met – and was instantly drawn to – Linda when she did shows with us Playbox Players, an improvisational company for and with children. She was so much fun and I was in awe of the ease with which she embodied characters on the spur of the moment. Her star still shines.

  6. I had the joy of knowing Linda, but mainly after her life onstage. It speaks to her greatness that she did not find it necessary to refer to those years on a day-to-day basis. They were part of her, and it just wasn’t necessary. She was complete and absolutely wonderful in herself. I miss her deeply.

  7. I am very sad to learn of Linda’s passing. She was a great actor and I had the privilege to see her in many of the above mentioned roles, including Death of a Salesman. Wasn’t she also in Buried Child? She was a lovely person also.

  8. I met Linda when I was working at Portland State in the costume room. She was the original Alice in Commedia’s ‘Glassy Alice through the Looking Glass’ at Storefront Theatre. She was in various vaudevilles singing and dancing, a particularly memorable turn as a torch singer in a blonde wig doing an amazing version of Makin Whoopee, numerous old comedy sketches, tap dancing to ‘Everything’s going to be ok America’ as a grand finale. I saw her in many shows over the years. Always on point and introducing you to a new and interesting character. Always kind and funny and generous. We are all lucky to have known an worked with her. My deepest condolences to her family. She lives on in so many memories.

  9. An absolutely brilliant artist and wonderful soul. So lucky to have seen her work. Thank you for the great memories.

  10. Thanks, Bob, for your beautiful and sensitively written comments on Linda’s performances. I was a friend of Linda’s for a number of years, and all the comments you make both regarding her acting ability and her personality are spot on. I was not around to see any of her professional work, our work together was at Slabtown and Storefront theatres. Her emotional range was vast. There was a softness about her I have never seen in another person. It was subtle, and easily switched to humor. She was the kind of person you dream about but rarely meet.

  11. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing her Linda Loman, but I’ve never forgotten Linda’s Kate Keller in “All My Sons” with Profile Theatre in 2001, opposite Ted Roisum’s Joe Keller. She embodied a smoldering anguish and despair.

  12. I had the pleasure of working backstage with Linda in “Three Tall Women” at Portland Rep and “The Cripple of Innishmaan” at PCS, and saw her in various other things. She was a Mensch. Such a deep and wise person. Happy for her new freedom, sad for our loss.

  13. Just saw this and am feeling sad again. I was involved with 4 or 5 of the shows listed here, including “Death of a Salesman”.
    Linda was always the eye of the hurricane, a calm steady presence amidst the chaos. Blessings.

  14. Bob
    This is such a lovely tribute to one of Portland’s great treasures on the stage. I grew up watching her work from the Linnton Players, Ladybug Theater, Portland State ACT , Storefront Theater, Artists Rep and beyond, her talent was incredible, but her humanity in inhabiting characters came from her very soul. She lived an authentic life. What more can one ask for. Her laughter comes to mind and her zest for the next opportunity permeates my soul. I celebrate her life and grieve our communal loss.

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