Ceal Phelan, actress

Ceal Phelan in "Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention" by Nagle Jackson at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley in 2011. She had kept working despite a decade dealing with cancer.
Ceal Phelan in "Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention" by Nagle Jackson at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley in 2011. She had kept working despite a decade dealing with cancer.

She was long associated with People's Light and Theatre.

Posted: February 08, 2013

Ceal Phelan, 63, whose expressive and angular face graced regional theater here and around the country for more than four decades, died Tuesday, Feb. 5, in Malvern after a decadelong battle with cancer.

"Ceal was clear, specific, present, and full of empathy," said the director David Bradley, who first began working 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."

Ms. Phelan had been married to the director and actor Peter DeLaurier since 1972 - they met as romantic leads in a Missouri Repertory Theatre production of George Farquhar's The Beaux's Strategem. She and her husband spent time on stage in New York, but made their mark in the Philadelphia region as cofounders 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 been associated with the company since 1981 as an actor and director. Despite his wife's death, he appeared in the current production of A Winter's Tale on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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

"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, Mich., to William Phelan, an Army colonel, and his wife, Elizabeth, an actress. Later, with Delaware Theater Company, mother and daughter played Amanda and Laura in Tennessee Williams' 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 [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 in. 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 The 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 with the Lantern, the Arden Theatre, 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."

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, and two brothers.

A memorial service is being planned at the Willistown Friends Meeting. A public memorial at People's Light is also in the planning stages.

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

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