Said to be something of a harridan, Grandma Lola never did trust banks. When she died in 1964, her daughter knew exactly where to look.
Under the mattress. Sure enough, there was a wad of cash there.
Lola’s daughter used the windfall to take her own daughter, Susie Mullen, from their Chicago home to New York City. The 14-year-old saw a Broadway production of Hello Dolly! — and her world was transformed.
“It was the first theatre experience Susie had. And that was it. She was bitten for life,” said John Ratel, her husband
Susie Mullen, who died on Jan. 5 at the age of 67, was an actor. She wasn’t famous. But she was the real thing.
For many years, Mullen worked as a human-resources manager for Victoria companies. At night, she performed in community theatre. Technically, Mullen wasn’t a professional performer; nonetheless, she was among this city’s finest actors.
Mullen appeared in Langham Court Theatre’s 2015 production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. She took the lead role of Violet — a hard-bitten Gorgon who spits verbal darts at anyone who crosses her path.
Hers was an accomplished performance: complex, nuanced, powerful, physical. I remember thinking: “Where on earth did they find her?” That year, Victoria critics named Mullen best actor in a community-theatre show. It was the best performance — professional or amateur — I saw that season.
Friends and colleagues say she was hard-working, dedicated, generous, tough, smart and humorous. Invariably, the word “feisty” comes up.
“She was no bullshit. Didn’t suffer fools,” said Karen Lee Pickett, artistic director of the Victoria Shakespeare Festival, which enlisted Mullen on many occasions.
“She was a straight-shooter,” Ratel said.
Keith Digby, who co-directed Mullen in August: Osage County, said she was very direct, but never mean. “If you asked Susie a question, just expect the answer. Not some politely rolled version of it.”
Actor Cam Culham remembers being in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mullen. At one point, he had to change from a pink fairy costume to a toga. Mullen was his dresser. The quick switch was so difficult, Culham was consistently late for his entrances.
The director wondered aloud if Mullen should take the fairy role. But she wasn’t keen on the costume.
“She said: ‘Dammit, let’s make that costume work because I don’t want to wear that [expletive] fairy suit!’ ” Culham said.
Digby, the former artistic director of Victoria’s Bastion Theatre, has directed professionally across Canada. He recalled a scene from August: Osage County in which Mullen, as Violet, attacks a dozen people sitting at a dining-room table. In rehearsal, the sequence kept going awry.
“After the second time, Susie said: ‘Well, that was a real clusterf---,’” Digby said with a laugh.
He said Mullen possessed the rare ability to make her characters into real people, as opposed to the actor who trots out lines. In terms of community theatre, “she was one of the best ever for me,” Digby said, adding: “She was a professional actress.”
Mullen was a passionate, sometimes impulsive woman. Ratel said he and his wife were once waiting in line to board a cruise ship when they started chatting with the couple ahead of them, who turned out to be fans of George Bush.
“The lady said: ‘Well, we all get our news from Fox.’ Susie said: ‘Right, that’s the end of this conversation.’ Then she stood up and walked away.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Mullen was a tried-and-true Democrat. In 2004, fretting about the Bush regime, she single-handedly registered more than 1,500 U.S. citizens living on Vancouver Island for the vote. The American organization Democrats Abroad named Mullen volunteer of the year, flying her to Washington D.C. to receive a plaque.
Her mother was a single parent and Mullen was an only child. Ratel said the family was so poor, they surfed couches for a time. When Mullen won a scholarship to a Catholic grammar school, her mother couldn’t afford small fees that weren’t covered. The fees were waived in return for the girl waiting on the nuns’ dining tables.
Mullen took a fine arts degree from Northwestern University in Illinois. Perhaps because of her hard-scrabble upbringing, she opted not to pursue a full-time career as an actor. Nonetheless, she did act in professional and amateur productions in Chicago, Tucson and Seattle.
“I think Susie would have loved to have earned her living acting,” said Ratel, who met Mullen when he was director of sales and marketing for Delta Hotels. He’d flown on business to Chicago, where Mullen was a reservations supervisor for Air Canada. Attracted to Ratel from the get-go, she craftily exchanged place cards at a business dinner so she could sit beside him.
Ratel was then married to another woman. However, he and Mullen kept in touch. When he divorced his wife years later, they embarked on a romance. Mullen moved from Tucson to Seattle to be closer to him. They married 18 years ago.
In 2013, Mullen was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given 18 to 24 months to live. She quit her day job to devote herself to acting. Mullen, who would eventually succumb to liver failure, told no one of her illness save for a few close friends. She acted regularly despite her sickness, somehow mustering the energy.
Mullen’s last show was a dramatic reading of The Cemetery Club on Oct. 29. Ratel said his wife got through it despite being ill and jaundiced. She died two months later.
“Well, she was from Chicago’s north side,” he said. “They don’t come any tougher.”
A celebration of Susan Elizabeth Mullen’s life will be announced later. She asked, in lieu of flowers, that her friends attend theatre and support the arts in Victoria.