Luke Yankee moved to Los Angeles the day before

Luke Yankee moved to Los Angeles the day before the January 1994 Northridge earthquake struck. Yet there wasn't a chance this terrible introduction to the city would send the tenacious writer-actor-producer-director scuttling back to New York. Throughout his wide-ranging career, the proactive, Juilliard-trained Yankee has taken charge of his creative destiny. Hard work, moxie, and talent are apparently in his genes. His mother was an actor's actor: the Tony-, Oscar-, and Emmy-winning thespian Eileen Heckart (1919–2001), best known for her stage performance in the original Broadway production of Picnic and her film portrayals in Butterflies Are Free and The Bad Seed, roles she also originated onstage. In his just-released book, Just Outside the Spotlight, and his solo stage vehicle, Diva Dish!, Yankee pays tribute to his famous mother with film clips, stills, witty banter, and humorous and poignant anecdotes illuminating Heckart's feisty but warm personality and the colorful celebrities in her professional and social circles.

In her review of Diva Dish! (in Back Stage West), Melinda Schupmann praised Yankee's "charming mimicry" of Heckart and the other real-life characters depicted, calling the piece "90 minutes of good old-fashioned dishing, done with a great deal of affection and sentiment." Yankee continually accepts bookings for this piece on cruise ships, in theatres and cabarets, on the lecture circuit, and at benefits and corporate events. Its first presentation outside of its original living-room tryouts was at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for a few performances in 2003. He chuckles when mentioning that he fine-tunes the show for different audiences: "It can be something quite different when presented to a gay audience or to the blue-haired matinee crowd."

He describes the show's trajectory: "After Mom died, as my two older brothers and I were going through all the memorabilia from her 50-year career in show business, I suddenly realized that I was the only one who knew what all this material was. So I put together a very crude little PowerPoint presentation in my living room, and a couple of video clips, and brought together a half-dozen savvy theatre friends and gave them notepads. They told me I was sitting on a gold mine. So I started developing it. I always loved telling my mother's stories as much as I had loved hearing them. There's been a tremendous interest in the show, and it has continued to evolve. I'm thrilled to have this opportunity at Long Beach Playhouse to hone and refine it, with top-notch designers and a top-notch director [John Sgueglia], for a sit-down run."

The book seemed the logical next step. "From the first time I did the show at LATCl, people told me it had to be a book," says Yankee. "I was determined to put down these stories and immortalize this incredible lady who was so special to me, but also to a lot of people because of her work. I knew the stories were unique, and if I didn't do something with them, an important part of theatre history would be lost. I started doing the book by transcribing the show, and then it evolved from there. The response has been incredible. My website is listed in the back of the book, and I get emails from people all over the world. I got a phenomenal email about it two days ago from Charles Busch."

Yankee's résumé is impressive. Originally from Connecticut, he resided in New York for 15 years, where he assistant-directed six Broadway shows for such directors as Harold Prince, Brian Murray, and Ellis Rabb. Notes Yankee, "I then began directing at regional theatres across the country, while also doing the struggling-actor bit. I go wherever the work takes me, and I love whatever I am doing at the moment." The bulk of his career has been in directing, which he says he loves, especially musicals. He served as producing artistic director of the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and artistic director for the Struthers Library Theatre in Warren, Pa. He has acted in theatre, film, and television. He teaches and guest-directs extensively at colleges, universities, and conservatories throughout the United States and abroad.

Among current irons in the fire, Yankee is excited about his play A Place at Forest Lawn, which he co-authored with James Bontempo. It premiered last fall at the Arvada Center in Colorado to rave reviews and has been picked up by Dramatists Play Service. Yankee remarks, "My mother and Maureen Stapleton did a one-act [by Lorees Yerby] on PBS in 1967, a very touching two-actor piece about two old ladies in a cafeteria planning their funeral." The co-writers originally expanded it into a TV movie script to star Heckart and Julie Harris. Both actors fell ill, yet Yankee and Bontempo continued to develop it for television, eventually deciding to rework it as a multicharacter play. Yankee hopes to mount a future production in L.A.

One can't help but wonder how emotionally challenging Diva Dish! is for Yankee. Besides the hilarious moments and generally upbeat tone, he includes the heart-wrenching details of his last minutes with his mother. He also performs a scene with her recorded voice, portraying the blind boy opposite her Oscar-winning lines as the boy's mother in Butterflies' climactic scene. He admits that these portions of the show, as well as his rendition of a melancholy Kander and Ebb song, "Sometimes a Day Goes By," are sometimes difficult. He concludes, "When my friends first saw the show, especially the scene where I say goodbye to her, they asked me how I could do that. My answer is, 'How can I not put this in the show? It was one of the pivotal moments in our relationship.' This piece is the most important work I have done in my life."

Diva Dish! continues through Aug. 26 at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, Calif. Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. (562) 494-1014.