When Susan Wefel and her suitcase moved into a rambling farmhouse in Rose Valley, PA, she was the youngest person in the building. Today, 36 years later, she says matter-of-factly, “Now, I am the oldest person in the house, and I have lived in every single bedroom.”
Susan lives at the Hedgerow House, which serves as lodging for many of the actors at the nearby Hedgerow Theatre, where Wefel is performing beginning this week in Emlyn Williams’s spine-chilling mystery A MURDER HAS BEEN ARRANGED. Her arrival in winter 1978 was not auspicious: snow swirled, dinner was meagre, rooms were drafty. But Wefel was undeterred. Here, she knew, she could focus entirely on her art. “A certain kind of person can feed off this environment,” she told Main Line Today in 2003. “It’s not for everybody. If you walk into this place, you can either do it or not. This, to me, was heaven.”
Then as now, Wefel and the other Hedgerow fellows were expected to do far more than memorize lines and hit their marks. Offstage, they also built sets, cleaned the house, worked on marketing, cooked their dinners, and pitched in with all special events and touring shows. While these long days are not for everyone (Keanu Reeves, a resident in 1972, did not last long), those with the requisite passion can thrive.
Said Penelope Reed, “The Hedgerow is unique in the nation. Each year, many young actors apply for the handful spots in our fellowship program. They receive room, board, and a small stipend. In exchange, they are support staff for the house and the theater. And most important of all, they launch their professional careers as cast members in our shows. For dedicated young actors, this is an irresistible deal.”
Wefel thrives on the interaction with twenty-somethings at Hedgerow House: “It helps keep me young.” In turn, she helps the young residents learn the ropes. “Keeping the kitchen clean is a challenge, as is making sure people don’t hog the bathroom or use all the hot water. As for acting, I try to convey to them that being on time and prepared for rehearsal is crucial.” Most nights, house residents fend for themselves, cooking separate meals. On Sundays, Wefel makes a point of arranging a communal dinner with crock-pot chili, salad, and bread, prior to the 6pm rehearsal.
When natural or man-made disasters occur, residents scramble to assist however they can. “I remember chopping up a pine tree that fell on the parking lot. Once we were rehearsing when the power went out, so we came back to the house to do another rehearsal.” In 1985, the theater was gutted by a fire caused by arson. Wefer remembers: “We residents were all down at the theater, helping move the Wharton Esherick furniture out the windows.”
Through the years, Wefel has been cast in dozens of onstage roles from ingénue to schoolmarm, deceived wife to ditzy maid. Ken Wareham, long-time member of the theater’s board of directors, gives Wefel rave reviews. “My wife Cathy and I love to watch Susan on stage. She is completely confident in her character, and always in total command of her lines and moves. She’s just terrific to watch.”
A native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Susan drives west to visit her relatives on the rare week off. At Christmas, she is always here, performing in A Christmas Carol, and has been “adopted” by the Momjian family – many of whom also perform in A Christmas Carol – to celebrate the day at their nearby home.
Wefel says, “I am into character roles these days. Plus, I’m an Anglophile –I love Judy Dench. Every Sunday, if we’re not rehearsing, you’ll find me watching Downton Abbey.”
Recently, she fell in love with a one-woman show at the Cleveland Playhouse about advice columnist Ann Landers. Gesturing to a turquoise typewriter on a desk, she said “I am now working on that show, and plan to tour it around to retirement places. Everyone in the audience will remember Ann Landers!”
Now 64, Wefel maintains her sense of humor, even on the topic of aging. Having performed as Wilbur the Pig in the children’s theatre production of Charlotte’s Web for many years, Wefel now says, “I can’t be on my knees anymore for that part. I’m hanging up my snout.” For this dynamic and extraordinary performer, it is a rare concession to age.
Susan Wefel returns to the stage in Hedgerow Theatre’s production of A MURDER HAS BEEN ARRANGED [64 Rose Valley Road, Media, PA] February 19-March 29, 2015; hedgerowtheatre.org.