Remembering Rose Pickering
Rose Pickering, a versatile actress and a virtual lifer at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died at 64 on Thanksgiving night after a long struggle with cancer.
Pickering opened The Rep’s new Powerhouse Theater in 1987, as Dolly in The Matchmaker. She played Kate Keller in All My Sons, Mag in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible, Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa. She was Juno in Juno and the Paycock, Miss Lulu Bett and Mother Courage. She performed in all four great Chekhov masterpieces, and played both Olga and later Masha in Three Sisters, Sonya in Uncle Vanya, Arkadina in The Seagull and Bobka in The Cherry Orchard. She often worked with her husband, Jim Pickering, another Rep stalwart.
Actor and playwright John Kishline has been friends with the Pickerings for more than 4o years. He shared some thoughts on Rose’s passing.
Over the course of one of our first dinners together many years ago, we talked about everything and then talked some more as we emptied every cordial bottle in the cabinet. The sweet alcohol fueled a conversation that skidded all over the human map and included my father’s recent sudden death.
We talked of how being an actor, with its trading in the limits of human emotions, did not lessen the hammering shock of the loss. Perhaps what it did do was make it easier to rebound from the shock. We spoke of visiting those dark pits on stage for the public to see and judge. We talked of vulnerability and mettle, fear and courage and the will to forge on to find meaning in a world that seems to have little. Oh, we talked. And when it was time for me to go, Rose forced a cup of coffee on me as some kind cosmic insurance that I would make it home safely. It wasn’t far and I did, and hit the bed moments later. At 3 a.m. I sat up, wide awake from a caffeine and sugar fever dream that demanded recognition from the conscious world. I wrote about my dad.
That text sat for close to 10 years before I put it in a character’s mouth in my play, SUCCESS, in 1990. When we retooled the play for the India tour this last summer, I rewrote it. Here is the passage that began in a discussion with the Pickerings about life, death and theater:
“When I was kid, my Dad always fell asleep on the rug as we watched TV. Then he’d begin mumbling, and talking, you know, blurting out phrases. Sometimes they almost made sense. My brother, Gregg, and I would ask him questions about this stuff as he laid there. And my dad would tumble out answers that made sense only to him. Like warnings. ‘Watch out for the goddamn craster!’ What’s a craster, Dad? We’d laugh. Man, did we laugh. This would go on for awhile and then Mom would shoo us away, or he’d lapse into snoring. Later, he’d wake for a slug of milk in the kitchen and plod up the stairs to bed. Next day, he went into work and turned that into money. Thirty years, man. They paid him and he took it. That’s a lot of demons. I couldn’t do that.”
I later acted with Rose twice. The one I remember most clearly is Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, in which she played Edna and I played Harry. It was a fine cast: Jim Pickering, Elizabeth Norment, Deborah Staples, Laurie Birmingham, Rose and me. Edward Morgan directed. We did well. I needed that because I was reeling from the implosion of Theatre X only a few months before, and whatever claim I had to being an actor and an artist was tenuous.
Rose was there for me as a touchstone, my defender and champion. My great friend when I really needed one. My life was there in the play, grappling with those demons. Rose’s performance was beautiful. She stood next to me with all her vulnerability and mettle, fear and courage and the will to forge on to find meaning in a world that seems to have little.
Oh, I will miss that.
Display image: Rose Pickering in Enchanted April in 2008. Milwaukee Rep photo by Jay Westhauser.