Little stage on the prairie

I was in the lobby at SF Playhouse for an opening a couple weeks ago, and while milling through the crowd, I heard a voice that zinged me straight back to childhood.

There I was, 8 years old, glued to the television while Ma, Pa, Mary and Laura (aka Half-Pint) attempted to make a life for themselves in a little house on the prairie.

The voice in the lobby belonged to Karen Grassle (pronounced Grass-lee), who played Ma for eight seasons on the NBC TV version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie’’ books.

It turns out Grassle, though famous for her TV work, is a theater person and a Bay Area native.
We’ve seen her on stage a few times – in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet during artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s debut season, and in SF Playhouse’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.

About three years ago, Grassle, 66, returned to the Bay Area for good.

She was actually born at Albany Hospital, but her family moved south to Ventura, and she wasn’t back in the Bay Area until after high school when she enrolled in the English Department at UC Berkeley.

During her college years, she was an apprentice at the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, and then did her post-graduate work at the London Academy of Music and Drama.

“Theater was just one of those things that was in my blood,’’ Grassle says. “Not being a practical thing to do, I tried to ignore it. My parents certainly tried to ignore it. Eventually I had to surrender. This was my calling.’’

Grassle has done a fair bit of traveling in pursuit of stage work. From London she landed in Memphis, Tenn., then headed to New York, where her big Broadway break, The Gingham Dog, earned her a Tony nomination.

After “Little House’’ ran its course, Grassle took time off to raise a family, but she kept a foot in the theater world. Eventually she moved to New Mexico to start a theater company there (“It was too hard trying to do everything.’’), then she landed in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre.

In the last four years she has done Driving Miss Daisy four times, and now she’s making her TheatreWorks debut in Kathleen Clark’s romantic comedy Southern Comforts.

Directed by Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin, “Comforts’’ is a “December-Decmeber’’ romance about a Southern widow and a Yankee widower (the Bay Area’s Edward Sarafian) who get what they least expected — a second chance at love.

“My character is Amanda Cross, a former librarian from Tennessee,’’ Grassle explains. “She was widowed quite young and was a single mom for years. With any character you play, you find all the places in yourself that can touch the places in her. With Amanda, that’s being a single mom, loving books and wanting to share your happiness. That’s a longing I share with her.’’

And working with Joy Carlin?

“Oh, Joy is a joy,’’ Grassle says. “It’s like having a master class in comedy with her. Because she’s an actor, too, she’s extremely patient and sensitive with our process. She doesn’t lay all the pressure on you like some directors do. Besides, I just love her. I’m delighted I know her.’’

Southern Comforts continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$56. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

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