There’s a lot written about John Barrymore’s life. You’ll find much less about Joe and Shirley “Muz” Ibach. So little that most of us hadn’t heard of them until Perseverance Theater’s world premiere of “Dreaming Glacier Bay.” The play that brought us their real-life encounter on Lemesurier Island won’t make them a household name. But their modest legacy is more authentic than the famous actor of stage and screen.
Reporter Clara Miller gave us the backstory to Joel Bennett’s playwriting debut in the Capital City Weekly. Its Juneau run ended last weekend. Next stop, Anchorage, where new reviews will be written to compliment the local ones by Geoff Kirsch and Scott Burton.
None of them shared the mystery Bennett solved. I won’t either.
And I’m not intending to critique the play as much as take a cue from Bennett’s epilogue. Handed to theatergoers as we walked out the door, it briefly describes what became of them. As I stood in the lobby, I could still hear the voice of Peter DeLaurier, the actor who played Barrymore, recite these extra lines:
“After all the stardom, the royalty and the fame,” he concludes, “Muz and Joe, in that faraway place of my dreams, were the only real people I ever knew.”
Turner Classic Movies remembers Barrymore as “the most celebrated Shakespearian actor in the world.” Securing that reputation is what drove him professionally. “Money meant nothing to me,” he said in a 1933 interview. More important was that he erased a reputation as “a wild, irresponsible no-good comedian” and became applauded by “the most critical Shakespeare audiences on earth.”
The real Barrymore had a drinking problem. It ruined three marriages and reduced his star appeal to the big filmmakers. By some accounts, it became so difficult to remember his lines that all the talk of returning to the theater was a façade he built to hide fears about performing for live audiences.
In “Dreaming Glacier Bay,” DeLaurier gave us glimpses of Barrymore’s Shakespearean brilliance. But mostly we saw a man desperately battling envy and denial.
His two-sided dance with fame and fortune isn’t a unique story. Somehow, one or the other has destroyed the lives of many celebrities. The only thing shining afterwards is the public persona of an actor, musician or athlete.
Bennett didn’t write Barrymore into this story to give us his dark side though. He wanted to know why an internationally acclaimed actor would visit the Ibachs on a remote island decades before Alaska became a popular destination for the rich and famous.
As Miller explains, part of their life and reputation on Lemesurier is well documented. Stories about them reached beyond our borders in Dave Bohn’s 1971 book “Glacier Bay, the land and the silence.” Those would inspire Judith B. Aftergut who, having lived through violent relationships and years of depression, “looked to the thread of their lives as a way to nourish my soul and ground it in reality.”
Aftergut traveled to the Ibachs cabin and Glacier Bay in the 1970s. Half a lifetime later she published “Everything They Wanted: Muz and Joe, Reid Inlet, and Glacier Bay (If A Place Could Speak).” Kim Heacox praised her book as “a story about listening, loving and remembering; about finding the sacred.”
Whatever role the Ibach’s played in altering the direction of Aftergut’s life wasn’t something they chose. They had departed this world 15 years before she sought out their love and hospitality. But that they are affectionately named in the book’s subtitle says they left behind a profound message. And even if very few people remember them, that gift to the world is more genuine than anything born in the illusion of fame and fortune.
Barrymore’s full legacy is just that and deserves the mixed reviews. He may have impressed the critics and won fans from across the world. But it was for his acting, not how he lived. No one should want to emulate his offstage failures.
We like to think we’re the directors of the legacy we leave behind. But we get a different vision from Bennett’s pairing of Barrymore’s with the Ibach’s. Our lasting influence is more likely an interaction of character and fate than a self-serving ego. And the clues to the authentic side of ourselves might be closer to home than we think.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.