Movie and television actress Colleen Zenk, who plans to be a stage hit this summer in Ottawa, said Friday Ottawa already is a hit with her.
"I'm just kind of blown away," she said. "The town is so charming."
Zenk was introduced by actor Walt Willey, an Ottawa native, who announced a sprawling production of "Auntie Mame" will be the sixth summer show to be presented by WilleyWorld Community Productions.
Last summer, with the production company's usual venue of the auditorium at Ottawa Township High School unavailable because of renovation work, the play "Deathtrap" was staged at Central Intermediate School in Ottawa.
"This year we decided to come back big," said Willey, who is perhaps best known for his role of Jackson Montgomery in the long-running soap opera "All My Children." "We found a very well-known but rarely-done comedy with a sweeping story and a huge cast of fascinating, funny and memorable characters."
Willey said the title character, "a handsome, sparking, scatterbrained and warm-hearted lady" given to madcap adventures will be played by Erica Quirk, of Minooka, who appeared in the past productions of "Harvey" and "Plaza Suite."
For "Auntie Mame" guest artists, Willey called on his son, Chance Willey, 19, and Zenk.
Zenk portrayed Barbara Ryan on the CBS daytime drama "As the World Turns" for more than 30 years, and has been seen with Albert Finney and Carol Burnett in the movie "Annie," and on Broadway in "Bring Back Birdie."
In "Auntie Mame" Zenk will play Mame's best friend, actress Vera Charles.
"I've heard so many great things about Ottawa from Julia Barr, Jill Larson, Vincent Irizarry and Bobbie Eakes — not to mention Walt — that I'm thrilled to be able to come in and perform," Zenk said. "When we were working on 'Tainted Dreams' together last summer, I asked Walt if he'd like to join the cast of 'Thurston' and he asked me if I wanted to do this summer's show. Look's like both worked out."
Zenk noted she is a third generation Illinois native of Barrington — where one grandfather was a farmer and the other the suburb's mayor — but had never been to Ottawa before.
Chance Willey was featured in the 2010 production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and last year's "Deathtrap."
"I'm thrilled and honored to return to my father's hometown and perform with this talented company of actors," he said.
Also featured in the large cast of local and regional talent from Starved Rock Country are Joe Ennenbach, Lou Ann Gayan, Kelly Johnson, Randy Oltman, Geri Perry, Nolan Perry, Karley Swords, Deb Torri, Japheth Villarin, Leighton Williams, Taylor Castelli, Austin Dille, Tony Epperson, Kaitlyn Gribbinds, Darlene Halm, Christopher Harkins, Carol McConville, Michael Meatheringham, Brian Rehor and Terry Thompson.
Willey said production mainstay Howard Johnson will not be available for this year's production.
"He's going to London to work with Monty Python on their reunion tour," he explained.
Jane Mills and Maureen Wolfe are returning for their fourth year as co-directors. Rachel Hettrick, another WWCP Mentorship Program graduate, will be stage manager. Judy Brenzing joins WWCP as promotions manager and Mary Morgan is WWCP's community advisor.
"We are so proud to have so many local actors on stage this year," Morgan said. "We have folks from Shepherd Junior High School, OTHS, Marquette, Streator, La Salle-Peru, Mendota, Morris, Minooka — I think everybody will know somebody on stage."
Willey said he was pleased with WWCP's new affiliation with Starved Rock Country and his position as SRC community arts advisor.
"Starved Rock Country celebrates the many local cultures, histories and personalities that make up our wonderful region, and the development and support of the arts are an important part of that," said Starved Rock Country founder John Newby, publisher of The Times newspaper. "Knowing what Mr. Willey and his organization have done in and for this area, we felt that a partnership made sense."
"I've been a very vocal booster of this area for years and when I became aware of Starved Rock Country's efforts in that regard, I was excited about what we might do together for the arts in Starved Rock Country," Willey said. "Developing entertainment and arts possibilities for this area has been the purpose of WWCP from the beginning seven years ago, so it is particularly exciting to have Starved Rock Country as a partner in this mission."
Willey credited many Ottawa-area merchants with WWCP's success.
"We also have some returning sponsors that have been there for us since the very beginning," he said. "Illinois Office Supply, Bill Walsh Automotive, Handy Foods, Herman's Liquors, the Hi-Way Restaurant, Golden Rule Lumber, Turk Furniture, JJ's Pub, Jeremiah Joe Coffee and many others have since pledged their continued support. It would be very difficult to do what we do without the tremendous support these local businesses have given us."
"Auntie Mame" tickets go on sale Monday, June 9, through the Ottawa Visitors Center. For details call or visit the website at experienceottawa.com.