South Abington Township native Patti Purcell was named “lead actress in a drama” by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Theatrical Alliance (NEPTA) on April 6.
The NEPTA Awards honor excellence in community theater. Purcell won the award for her role as Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” written by Margaret Edson. The production was put on by the Scranton theater group Actors Circle in July and directed by Casey Thomas.
Purcell, an Abington Heights graduate, trained in New York City. She later lived near Philadelphia before moving back to the Scranton area and working with Actors Circle. She has been involved in theater for almost 40 years.
In her role as Vivian Bearing, Purcell portrayed a cancer patient who receives a diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer. Bearing is the play’s narrator and protagonist. A professor of English who specializes in the poetry of John Donne, Bearing has pursued knowledge and her career above everything else. She is stoic and strong, but through her journey with cancer, she realizes the importance of connection with people as she comes to terms with her life and death.
Some thought the role of Bearing must have been relatable for Purcell since she, like the character she portrayed, experienced cancer. But Purcell shared that the role was challenging and stretched her as an actor.
The play included a 90-minute section of monologue, and had scholarly language in the script that Purcell worked tirelessly to get right. The role also portrayed the emotional journey Bearing took. Purcell shared that Bearing faced things head on. She had moments of humor and sarcasm, but raw scenes too.
“There were moments when there was nobody around, when she didn’t have to play it strong,” Purcell said. “There were moments of vulnerability, of insecurity. I could relate on those levels. I was acting, but there were moments on stage where I could certainly relate. The role itself was a challenge for me. But it was one I took. I said ‘I need to do this’. It was a needy, raw, memorable and moving role.”
“It brought the audience to tears,” Purcell shared. “I think some may have been apprehensive to see it because of the subject matter – cancer. You don’t know what cancer is like unless you’ve come through it. It’s really very hard to tell people about it. It’s still the ‘C’ word. People don’t even like to talk about it.”
Purcell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.
“I was doing the play ‘Dracula,’” Purcell remembered. “I had surgery on Jan 2, 2014. Our show opened at the end of January. I had my chemo treatment on a Wednesday and the show opened on Thursday. ... Even as I was going through my treatment, I still performed. It was like my therapy. When I was on stage, I’d forget about any pain or heartache.”
Five years after her surgery and treatment, Purcell is doing fine, but her experience has had a lasting impact on her. “It changed me,” she said. “Cancer changes things.”
Purcell shaved her head for her lead role in “Wit.”
“One thing that happened after treatment is I never got my hair fully back,” she said. “That’s always bothered me. It was just one of the hard things to have to deal with. But I said, ‘I already know what I look like bald.’ My hair was short and thin anyway. So I shaved it for the part. I was all in. I said, ‘I’m going for it.’ ... This play was an opportunity for me to challenge my acting technique and my skill. I had to be on my game.”
Although winning the NEPTA best actress award was a huge honor, Purcell said she doesn’t act to garner awards.
“This is my passion,” she said.
Purcell recently relocated to Media, Pennsylvania, which she described as a “big, brave, bold move.”
“It was the right time,” she said. “I relocated with the intention of taking this to the next level and pursing acting professionally. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other. After my cancer diagnosis, I just have to do what I love. I’m going for it. It’s now or never.”
She is taking classes and currently acting in the production of “Sister Act” at the Player’s Club of Swarthmore which runs through May 4.
“I’m just very fortunate that I’ve come to the point where I have opportunities. I’m pursuing them and hope for the best,” she said.
Purcell shared her gratefulness for her time with Actors Circle.
“There’s a lot of talent up in Northeast Pennsylvania,” she said.
“The theater is a beautiful thing,” Purcell said. “This is me, this is where I am most happy. This is the talent God gave me and I have got to use it and share it. When I am up on that stage, there is just this whole inner thing that happens. This is where I light up. This is where I belong.”
Purcell wants to inspire others.
“You have to find what your passion is,” she said. “Trust your instincts. Trust yourself. I have gone through difficult situations. I’ve gone through cancer. I was very sick. For me, it was one day at a time. So, stay in the moment. Be there in the moment. Take things as they come.
“For me it’s one day at a time. One line at a time. One script at a time.”