Laurie Birmingham returns to Milwaukee as "Miss Abigail"
It's Valentine's week, the perfect time for a visit from Miss Abigail. She is sweeping into town today and encamping in Vogel Hall at the Marcus Center.
You don't know the big A? That is no shame. The central character in "Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage," she is still an emerging star.
But if you have been going to theater in Milwaukee at any time since the early '80s, you know the actress who is playing Abigail on a national tour.
Laurie Birmingham arrived here in 1981 from her Southern California hometown of Santa Monica to attend the old Professional Theatre Training Program at UWM, and she has been a frequent stage presence in Wisconsin since.
The Milwaukee Rep? She was in the cast of the first show the company produced, "Dancing at Lughnasa," after Joseph Hanreddy became its artistic director in the early '90s.
The American Players Theatre in Spring Green? Birmingham spent two seasons in the acting company and a third coaching voice and speech.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Skylight Music Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks and First Stage Children's Theater have all employed the actress. So did the old Theater Tesseract and Great American Children's Theatre. She was a part of the nutty madness of "A Cudahy Caroler Christmas" for In Tandem Theatre.
Birmingham occasionally left town to spend time elsewhere. She acted with the Utah Shakespearean Festival and taught at Southern Utah University for a spell, but she always returned to Milwaukee.
Two years ago, the actress permanently moved to New York, and now she is back for four days starring in a small national tour. "Miss Abigail, my character, is a widow who takes a trip to Mexico," Birmingham explained during a recent phone chat.
"She comes across a young man about half her age crying in his chimichanga because his girlfriend has left him." Miss Abigail takes it upon herself to cheer up the fellow, whose name is Paco, and she becomes his romance tutor, drawing on advice to the lovelorn she gleans from old books.
The mentoring has an unexpected effect. Paco falls in love with Miss Abigail, and she is the last to know it.
"It's cougar time," Birmingham said.
"The show is a hoot. I get to do a lot of audience participation. I love that kind of stuff, getting people up on stage." Instruction in successful flirting techniques is among the activities shared with the paying customers.
The single-act performance lasts about 80 minutes.
An employe of the Library of Congress started all of this. Abigail Grotke has a personal collection of more than 1,000 classic advice books, dating from 1822 to 1978. She plucked nuggets of wisdom from them and added her own witty commentary to create a website, Miss Abigail's Time Warp Advice, and write her own book, "Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage."
It was turned into a stage piece by New York producer Ken Davenport and theater artist Sarah Saltzberg. That was when Birmingham crossed paths with Miss Abigail.
The actress had never dreamed of living in New York, but on a brief stop to visit friends, she got the bug. "I thought, I own this place," she said.
Armed with an introduction from Milwaukee-based actress Linda Stephens, a Broadway veteran, Birmingham moved to the Big Apple and landed an interview with the firm that represents Stephens. The next day, one of the company's agents agreed to take her on and sent her to her first audition. It was for "Miss Abigail."
Birmingham got the part, helped workshop the show and went off to Tampa with it for an out-of-town tryout. Everything went well, but when casting for the off-Broadway production of "Miss Abigail" was announced, an old fact of commercial theater life emerged.
Producers look for a gimmick to sell tickets, and often that takes the form of plugging a star into a show, even if the luminary's brilliance has considerably dimmed. Eve Plumb, who played Jan Brady on "The Brady Bunch," got the job.
When Plumb left the production, Birmingham thought she might be moved into the role, but Joyce DeWitt of "Three's Company" was cast. Birmingham did get the call for the tour, which has taken her to Rochester, Cleveland and Fort Lauderdale before arriving here.
Although she didn't get to play Miss Abigail in New York, Birmingham was cast in another off-Broadway show, the Mint Theatre's revival of "A Little Journey," and received this nice notice in the New York Times review: "A regional theater veteran fresh to New York, Ms. Birmingham is a find worth cultivating."
Away from the stage, the actress quickly found a spot for her voice in the audio book industry, recording eight works for Recorded Books. "Linda Stephens got me in the door there, too," Birmingham said. "I've kind of found a home in the inspirational books niche."
And the actress has also been working out of New York on projects as wide ranging as "Pride and Prejudice" at the Connecticut Rep and playing a nun in the newest "Nunsense" iteration, "Nunset Boulevard," in several cities.
Most actors, even if they are very good, struggle to become established in New York after moving there. Not Birmingham.
"This is a good time for me. I have gotten a major second wind in my life," she said, adding that her age, 54, is working in her favor in New York. "There are about a dozen women in my age group who are working all the time.
"As soon as you hit 50, the field (of actresses) narrows way down."
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