Joyce Bigham, right, spent years acting in murder-mystery plays in Cape May for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities alongside her husband, Bruce. She was also a seamstress who liked to make her own costumes.

Photo provided by Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities

When it came to acting, Joyce Bigham would never make anyone forget Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep.

Bigham was strictly an amateur, an energetic, enthusiastic volunteer for years in dozens of productions by Cape May’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities.

Bigham, who lived in Middle Township, liked to join her husband, Bruce, in the twice-a-year plays featured in MAC’s Sherlock Holmes and Murder Mystery weekends. But her last acting came in March, in a Holmes show. Joyce was 73 when she died last month of cancer that was first diagnosed in 2004.

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Mary Stewart, MAC’s chief outreach officer, met Joyce in about 1992, after Joyce started as a MAC tour guide, a paid job. Joyce later worked in MAC’s museum shop, but then quit for a job with the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. But she definitely wasn’t finished with MAC when she left its payroll.

“She and Bruce were always first in line when we needed volunteers” for the plays, Stewart says. “And she would insist on having some sort of prop — a book or a fan, so she could have her lines written on it.”

Bruce Bigham says he and Joyce both started acting before they moved to Cape May County — first in Lower Township — in 1987. They had lived in Berwyn, Pa., but wanted to be closer to the beach and farther from the “hustle and bustle” of their old area. Still, the couple never acted in the same shows until they found the MAC mysteries.

“Half the time I had to drive her to the shows,” he says. “If she was in her costume, she couldn’t drive.”

So since he was already there, Bruce figured he might as well join the cast — even if Joyce always enjoyed roles that gave her smart-aleck lines to deliver to her husband.

But he got back at her, just as theatrically.

“Oh, I poisoned her one time, in Sherlock Holmes,” Bruce says now. “I was always one of the bad guys.”

And Joyce was always one of the well-dressed women — mainly because she was a talented seamstress who could make her own costumes.

MAC wasn’t the only place she donated her time. She was a regular at her local hospital, now Cape Regional Medical Center, where Bruce says she put in more than 3,700 volunteer hours.

Another MAC friend, Barbara Oberholtzer, says that instead of Katharine Hepburn, Joyce would bring to mind Norm Crosby, the old comedy master of malapropisms. Joyce would mangle a word, then “shrug and say ‘Oh, you know what I mean — I just can’t say it,’” her friend recalls.

For that and several other reasons, Oberholtzer adds that “Joyce was probably the most unforgettable character I've ever known.”

And she just happened to be a character who loved playing other characters — especially when she could make her own costume.

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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