Returning to her roots

Malibu’s angel prepares for a devilishly good drama at the Geffen.

By Kim Devore / Staff Writer

Roma Downey is famous for being an angel on screen and off. She inspired millions as Monica in the uplifting fantasy drama “Touched By An Angel.” As a tireless spokesperson for Operation Smile, her real-life good deeds can be called equally divine.

Downey’s next project takes her in a very different direction. The striking redhead has teamed up with legendary director Gil Cates in a thought provoking two-person play called “A Picasso,” which makes its West Coast Debut at the Geffen Playhouse Feb 11.

Veteran actor and Malibu neighbor Peter Michael Goetz portrays Picasso, while Downey takes on the role of Miss Fisher, an alluring art critic turned Gestapo interrogator.

For Cates, working with the two acclaimed actors is a treat.

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“To go to work every morning and have a great actor like Peter and beautiful and talented Roma is extraordinary,” the director said. And when it comes to dishy Miss Fisher, “there is no character that Roma could play, including a hangman, and not appear sexy.”

“A Picasso” takes place during the German occupation of France. The year is 1941. The city is Paris. The location is an art vault where Miss Fisher attempts to have the famed cubist painter authenticate three paintings that have been confiscated by the Nazis.

Portraying the artist, who had a certain reputation when it came to women, posed a challenge for Goetz.

“Picasso is a difficult role to play,” Goetz said. “I don’t want to portray him as unlikable.”

As for Downey’s character, “She is torn,” the celebrated star explains. “She knows the Third Reich will burn these pieces as degenerate art, but it’s a life or death situation for her.”

The actress has spent weeks immersing herself in the role.

“It’s very complex and provocative and deep,” she told The Malibu Times on the way to rehearsal one Thursday morning. “It’s like peeling an onion; there are so many layers.”

Downey also draws on memories that layer her own life. “I had an art school background as well as experience growing up in Northern Ireland with our war. The more shades and colors you can bring with you, the more interesting the picture you can paint.”

Born in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, Downey is no stranger to the stage by any means. At the Drama Studio London she appeared in classics by Shakespeare, Shaw and Chekhov. She toured the United States with Dublin’s famous Abbey Players, was nominated for a Helen Hayes Best Actress Award and starred opposite the great Rex Harrison on Broadway.

But switching gears from the more recent world of television has been a bit like getting back on a bike.

“In TV you have the luxury of saying ‘oops’ and doing it again. Here, there is a mountain of dialogue and just two of us on stage,” Downey said. “To jump back into such a meaty role has been a quite a challenge. I am returning to my roots, but I forgot what hard work it is.”

Adding to the challenge, the production will be presented in the new Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, an intimate 117-seat auditorium that was part of the Geffen’s $19 million facelift.

“The Audrey couldn’t be more perfect for the unusual setting of the play,” Cates said.

Even so, it’s an up close and personal venue that would challenge the most polished Broadway vet.

Despite a few understandable jitters, this is Downey’s time to shine.

Not only is her professional life filled with rich rewards, her personal life is thriving as well. She’s looking forward to a spring wedding to media mogul and longtime love Mark Burnett, who popped the question late last year in Mexico.

“He surprised me on Thanksgiving,” Downey said. “Our children were with us. They saw the ring. They all knew. The only one who didn’t know was me.”

The couple’s first encounter came three years ago at a Cross Creek beauty shop.

“He was getting a haircut and I was getting my nails done,” Downey recalled. “Our eyes met and I am sure I blushed. When he left, I discretely asked who he was, and they said he had just asked the same about me.”

The soon-to-be inseparable pair discovered they had a great deal in common. “We were both single with kids. We lived on the same beach. We were each self-made. We both came from the same corner of the world,” Downey said. “But, most importantly, we were crazy for each other.”

Their families have been integrated into what Downey calls, “Our own little Brady Bunch.”

When she’s not working, Downey treasures life at home with her clan and new puppy, Finn McCool-a frisky, but not so wee, Irish Wolfhound.

For the next several weeks, Downey will be juggling the demands of both family and a new play filled with “great plot twists and delicious surprises.”

Delicious surprises for the “Touched by an Angel” star seem to be heaven sent these days.

“Things are very different now,” she said. “I am at this place in life and I just couldn’t be happier.”

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