Bethpage playwright Joe Beck’s “Acts of Love” makes its world premiere Friday night at Lindenhurst’s Studio Theatre. But don’t let the provocative title fool you. It refers to a bittersweet, ultimately tragic relationship that unfolds like acts in a drama.
Ed and Sue Anne Dennehy, actors for a half-century each, were a divorced couple who reconnected as unmarried life partners until death took them both on March 5, 2016. Their lives were celebrated in a double Mass funeral in the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington, near the home they shared.
Knowing that Beck was acquainted with the Dennehys — Sue Anne, Ed and celebrity big brother, Brian, all Mineola-born-and-raised — David Dubin, Studio’s artistic director, immediately thought of him as the playwright for their story.
Sue Anne, a longtime BOCES arts teacher, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer around Thanksgiving 2015. Following unsuccessful treatment, she was moved to Hospice Inn in Melville. “Everyone who knew them,” Dubin says, “thought Ed couldn’t survive without her.”
Moments after Sue Anne succumbed to cancer, family members tried to break the news to Ed, only to find that he had died, too.
“It’s the stuff of great drama,” says Dubin, who directs “Acts of Love.”
MORE THAN A BIO
Neither director nor playwright wanted it be just a biography. So the author framed the story in the stagecraft they loved.
“Acts of Love” opens with Ed, played by Paul Wallace, dressed for the title role in “James Joyce: A Short Night’s Odyssey From No to Yes,” also written by Beck, while Carolyn Popadin as Sue Anne is dressed as Mrs. Bedwin in “Oliver!” These were the final roles for each (though Sue Anne appeared in a children’s show later, just before her diagnosis).
But the spine of this “romantic tragedy,” as Beck calls it, is one of the first plays in which they performed together. Brian directed them in a youth production of “West Side Story” at Williston Park’s Church of St. Aidan. The classic musical is inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” about young lovers who die almost simultaneously.
“It’s deceptively difficult to write the truth about people you know well,” Beck says. “Eulogies are nice, but they don’t make a believable play.”
Sue Anne and Ed married not long before graduating Hofstra in the late ’60s. They had two children who survive them, Courtney Flynn and Brendan. “But Ed didn’t relate to kids,” Beck says. His career took him out of town, playing summer stock at the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Playhouse with then-anonymous Tony Danza. But it was Ed’s alcoholism that triggered the couple’s divorce.
Before marriage, Sue Anne auditioned for the Rockettes. “But her father forbade her to join anything so risqué,” Beck says. Though she continued acting, Sue Anne began teaching to support herself and two children.
With his screen and stage stardom, “Brian had enough clout that he could land Ed movie roles if he could stay sober long enough,” Beck says. About 10 years after their breakup, Sue Anne took Ed back into in her home, where she kept a shrine of his acting career. She sometimes drove him to rehearsals or performances at their alma mater and other Long Island theaters. He played Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind,” Judge Danforth in “The Crucible” and elderly Bette Davis in “Me and Jezebel.” For that part, Sue Anne helped Ed shave his legs.
For the last 10 years of her life, Sue Anne was a mainstay in Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three acting company, starring as Grandma in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers.” Popadin, says director Dubin, “has the same soft-spoken determination Sue Anne had.” Wallace, who once performed with Ed in “Twelve Angry Men” at BroadHollow, “re-creates the way Ed spoke and moved,” Dubin says. “Mike Shanahan doesn’t resemble Brian, but he looks like he could be the Ed character’s older brother.”
Sadly, James Joyce was the dream role Ed Dennehy never got to complete. “Ed said he came out of retirement to play it,” Beck says. He fell ill after one preview and never made it to opening night in 2014. No one knows exactly what killed him two years later. Beck believes alcohol played a role, but also says that “Ed knew he really couldn’t live without her.”
Like great actors, their timing was perfect.
WHAT “Acts of Love”
WHEN | WHERE Through July 23. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Studio Theatre, 141 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
TICKETS $25; 631-226-8400, studiotheatreli.com