In 1979, in the heady first decade of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, Joyce Anabo and Dan Pessano played a married couple. The Good Company Players show was “The Mind With the Dirty Man,” an engaging romp about a man and wife who, unbeknownst to each other, take out personal ads seeking a bit of extramarital action. (This was long before the internet era, so you Tinder-ing youngsters out there thinking that Ashley Madison somehow broke new ground need to catch up on their theater history.)
The comic high point of the play, of course, is that Alma, the wife, ends up reading the ad placed by her husband, Wayne, and being intrigued. And vice versa. That leads to the shocking disclosure, big confrontation and major laughter. At the key moment:
“Alma?” he says incredulously.
“Wayne?” she replies, equally as astonished.
For more than 35 years after that production, whenever they’d talk to each other on the phone, Ms. Anabo and Pessano, the managing director of GCP, greeted each other the same way.
She’d say “Wayne?”
He’d reply, “Alma?”
It never got old.
That little private tradition encapsulates so much about Ms. Anabo, the longtime local theater veteran and dedicated high school teacher who died Feb. 18 in Fresno at 76. She cherished her friendships with her theater “family.”
And she could be wickedly funny.
“Good Lord, she could make me laugh!” says Beth Marney Emerian, who shared the stage with her.
More than anything, Ms. Anabo brought to the theater – whether it was acting, directing and teaching at Hoover and Bullard high schools – a joy that was contagious.
“I’m grateful to have shared that joy on and off stage,” says Tessa Cavalletto. “Joyce had an incredible joi de vivre that sparkled wherever she went. Our lives are brighter because of her.”
Ms. Anabo often teamed up with Cavalletto, Mary Piona, Gordon Moore and Noel Adams and others in a sort of “greatest generation” power bloc of local acting and directing talent. In such Good Company shows as “The Cemetery Club,” “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Over the River and Through the Woods,” there was a fierce sense of ensemble among Ms. Anabo and the dear friends who shared the stage with or were directed by her.
As a theater writer, I always felt a sense of solidity and reassurance whenever Ms. Anabo stepped on stage for the first time in a show. She could be statuesque in her comic presence. You just get that feeling from some actors: an impression of someone in control not only of their craft but also their connection with an audience. I found myself relaxing, however imperceptibly, in her presence. Whether it was wacky comedy, wry melancholy or fierce moments of unabashed drama, she made it seem easy.
One of her closest friends was Piona, who met her 30 years ago at the now shuttered Theatre 3. They were in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” one of Ms. Anabo’s favorites. The friendship clicked.
“You know what you say about friends, that you can’t remember not knowing them? That’s the way it was,” Piona says. “But we always said we weren’t going to talk about it.”
Donna E. Beavers shared a dressing room with Ms. Anabo and Piona in Good Company’s production of “The Women” in 2006. “Those two were great friends and loved to riff off each other. They would tell stories and jokes, and Joyce’s laughter would resonate through that tiny room. … For me it was like tonic to the soul.”
Born in Paden, Miss., Ms. Anabo moved to Fresno in 1965. She earned an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education at Fresno State. She has two daughters: Justine Logan and Julia Anabo.
For much of her career she taught classes in English, theater and psychology at Hoover, then moved on to Bullard.
Elizabeth Hovsepian Kiler cherishes a 1996 photo taken at her Bullard graduation party of Ms. Anabo. Most of the surrounding students were “her” kids, Kiler says.
“We enrolled in her drama classes year after year and acted in as many school plays as we could,” she says. “I imagine that throughout her teaching career, there was always a group of kids that felt this way about her. She created a space for us varying-degrees-of-weirdo types, and beautiful, enduring friendships blossomed in that space.”
Keep ’em guessing
There was always something edgy about Ms. Anabo, whether it was her embrace of students who might not fit into the mainstream or her openness to enlightenment of all forms. (“She always referred to herself as a seeker,” Piona says.) Yes, she made me comfortable as an audience member, but there was a mercurial quality to her as well, an ability to flit from the expected to the unexpected, that could keep me pleasantly off-kilter.
“She could make someone laugh and then make them cry with just one twist,” says Pessano, who counts “Over the River,” in which she played a grandmother trying to keep her grandson from moving to the opposite coast, as one of the best examples of her nuance on stage.
Ms. Anabo likely would have approved of the nuance in which her death was announced to her theater family, Pessano says.
Some of her closest friends, including Piona, were involved in the GCP production of “Blithe Spirit,” which was playing at the time of Ms. Anabo’s death.
Piona learned of her friend’s passing on a Saturday afternoon. With call time for that evening’s performance just a few hours away, she didn’t want to burden the cast with the news right before going on stage. Piona delivered a performance as the wacky Madame Arcati with the comic zing she’d perfected in the role, Pessano says. And she performed the Sunday matinee as well, again getting all the expected laughs. She waited until afterward to break the news.
For Pessano, it was a fitting moment.
“It’s a cliché that the show must go on, but it’s what we believe,” he says. “To bear that loss in the midst of people who were all very close to Joyce was as heroic an example of that as I’ve known. I do believe there is something in that generation, a theater DNA, if you will, that we push the things that are pertinent away and leave them in the dressing room. We come in and do the show. If Joyce could have had input, she wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way.”