Mary Alice Feather, 72, nurse, actress in community theater

September 29, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Mary Alice Feather was born into what would become one of the country's best-known political families - she was the sister and aunt of two U.S. senators - but she aspired to achieve fame on Broadway.

She spent only a few years trying to succeed in New York, but her love for the stage continued into her final years, when she won acclaim as a mainstay in Baltimore community theater.

The Ellicott City resident, who worked as a nurse for 12 years, died of lung cancer Thursday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. She was 72.

Born Mary Alice Bayh in Terre Haute, Ind., her childhood was divided between Rockville and her grandparents' farm in western Indiana, where she lived with her brother, Birch, a future U.S. senator, while her father was overseas in World War II. Her mother died when she was about 10.

After studying theater at what was then Indiana State College, Mrs. Feather went to New York - against her father's wishes - to try to succeed as an actress. She won small roles in some productions - she made her Broadway debut in a play with Ellen Burstyn - and continued her theater studies at Columbia University. But eventually she grew frustrated and moved to Washington.

There she met her future husband, Larry M. Feather, a technical specialist at the National Security Agency.

"She was pretty demoralized that she couldn't make it in New York," said Mr. Feather. "She still had the thought of getting back to New York sometime but could never do it."

Instead, Mrs. Feather worked as a secretary and then became a registered nurse, working for six years at Maryland Shock Trauma Center before switching to psychiatric nursing at Taylor Manor in Ellicott City.

However, she maintained her interest in acting. Once, she and her husband went to New York and met with her former acting coach, who described to his class how Mrs. Feather had stolen the show with a minor role in one play simply by walking on stage and saying her only line: "Let's get married."

After her retirement in 1991, she devoted herself to community theater, taking roles in local productions by companies such as the Vagabond Players and at venues such as AXIS Theatre. One of her most memorable roles was that of the mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

Mary Anne Perry, who performed with her in several plays, said Mrs. Feather delighted audiences no matter what her role.

"As an actress, she was phenomenal. She was so full of life and gave everything to the character, whether it was a scatterbrain or a sophisticated woman," said Ms. Perry. "She had a wonderful presence on stage, and always left us wanting more. She was an amazing woman."

Jennifer Brown met Mrs. Feather when they played mother and daughter in Other People's Money at the Spotlighters Theatre. They were together again in Mrs. Feather's final production in the winter, Inspecting Carol at AXIS.

"She was vibrant. For someone to work with, you couldn't ask for any better," said Ms. Brown. "You knew she loved it."

Mrs. Feather rarely spoke of her well-known brother and his son, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. "She was not one to throw around names," said Ms. Brown. "A lot of people don't even know who her family is."

Mr. Feather saw evidence of his wife's acting skills in recent weeks when, despite being rendered nearly speechless by a stroke, she was able to convey that she wanted her speech therapist dismissed because she didn't care for his voice.

"She was able to fire him without being able to speak," her husband joked.

An avid pet lover, Mrs. Feather often thanked her dog, Fred, as well as her husband in her plays' programs. "She never mentioned that he was a dog," her husband said.

Interment was private, and memorial plans are pending.

In addition to her husband, brother and nephew, Mrs. Feather is survived another nephew.

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