Longtime regional stage presence Ceal Phelan dies at 63

Posted: February 07, 2013

Ceal Phelan, whose expressive, angular face has graced regional theater here and around the country for more than four decades, died Tuesday in Malvern, after a decade-long battle with cancer. She was 63.

"Ceal was clear, specific, present, and full of empathy," said director David Bradley, who first worked with her when he came to People's Light and Theatre Company in 1991. "I think that's what made her such an extraordinary artist."

Married to director and actor Peter DeLaurier in 1972 - they met as the romantic leads in a Missouri Repertory Theatre production of George Farquhar's The Beaux' Strategem - Ms. Phelan and her husband spent time on stage in New York, but made their mark in the Philadelphia region as co-founder of the Delaware Theatre Company in 1978. She first appeared at People's Light in 1981 in Shaw's Augustus Does His Bit, and became an active company member in 1989, acting, teaching and directing.

DeLaurier has also been associated with the company since 1981 as actor and director. Indeed, he appeared in the current People's Light production of A Winter's Tale on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Bradley said it was "the best tribute to Ceal" for her husband immediately to embrace the stage they had devoted their lives to.

"She would have wanted that," DeLaurier said between shows Wednesday. "She would have been [annoyed] if I had missed it."

He performed in the morning performance Tuesday, then returned to his wife's bedside. They had agreed that he would play the cello for her in her last hours, and he knew this was the time.

As Ms. Phelan listened and briefly hummed with the somber tones, a tear ran down her cheek and she quietly stopped breathing, he said.

DeLaurier returned to the theater and spoke with the cast. All agreed it was right that he appear. "They weren't delicate," he said. "This is a hard production we're in and you've got to hit it hard."

Ms. Phelan was born in Royal Oak, outside Detroit, to William Phelan, an Army colonel, and Elizabeth Phelan, an actress. Later, with Delaware Theater Company, mother and daughter played Amanda and Laura in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.

"I didn't train to be an actress," Ms. Phelan once said. "I didn't train to do anything, really, until I got to college [the University of Michigan] and finally took my first acting class."

She was bitten, for sure, but it was not Broadway glamour that drew her. Rather, it was the world of regional theater, the community it created and the opportunities it provided.

"When you have an ensemble, you really get to know everyone," she told Stage magazine in 2010, after receiving a Barrymore Award nomination for her performance in David Hare's T he Breath of Life at Lantern Theatre Company. "There's no ice-breaking at the beginning of each rehearsal. You understand how the other person works. Sometimes you become a family, with some of those family problems. But all in all, there's a loyalty, possibly a love for each other, and certainly very often a respect that makes you mesh together."

In addition to People's Light, Ms. Phelan appeared in this region with the Lantern, the Arden Theater, Act II Playhouse and others, and taught and directed at Temple, Arcadia, and West Chester universities and the University of Delaware.

She was not loath to discuss the impact of her long illness on her work.

"I think just overall I'm a little easier with my approach to acting because it doesn't have the same degree of being crucial," she said in 2010. "It's not as life-and-death as my real situation. And I'm a little more relaxed about acting .. . . I don't tense up as much."

Director Bradley said Ms. Phelan displayed "enormous courage" throughout her illness and worked continuously. "I think she treasured the chance to work and do theater and teach. That's what she dedicated her last 10 years to."

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a son, Jake DeLaurier, a daughter Natalie (Nok) Phrompeng, a sister, Elizabeth Rice, and brothers Peter and William Phelan.

A memorial service is being planned at the Willistown Monthly Meeting. A public memorial at People's Light is also in the planning stages. No date has been set.

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter

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