Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Every, Every Minute

"There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning". ~Thornton Wilder

As I write this, Thanksgiving is upon us here in New York City.  It may be the Macy's parade, or the Rockettes, or the tree at Rockefeller Center, but all American eyes seem to turn to our city to launch the holiday season.  It's a time to gather family close, to stampede the department stores, and to deal with the expense and heightened security measures of this year's holiday travel woes.  Hard, perhaps, to see the forest for the Christmas trees.  But, working on two plays by Thornton Wilder while experiencing a major loss in my family has been a mixed blessing: both sobering and inspiring.

Most of us think Thornton Wilder, and think "Our Town."  There's a reason for this.  It's a masterpiece, an American masterpiece, and a play that speaks to the heart and soul of what life is about.  But so often people get the message wrong.  It's not a play about nostalgia or sentimentality; it's a play by an existentialist writer who offers a stinging indictment of human folly.  Wilder felt that human beings only experience life superficially; that we don't fully bring our awareness and our appreciation to all the moments of life, and that we don't truly understand our folly until we experience a loss, such as the death of a loved one.  It's a 'tough love' message.

With Clea at my brother's wedding, 1989
It is just this kind of realization, this seismic shock, that I am in the midst of now, as I grapple with the sudden passing of my sister, Clea.  After a series of medical crises, and a life crowded with challenge and hardship, she died at the too young age of 46, leaving three kids behind, whom we now embrace and support as a family and, with whom, through tear-filled eyes, we contemplate the future.  Having lost my Dad only 15 months ago, I am now familiar with the process of grieving, one that progresses in unexpected ways over a long period of time.  Right now, it's still a shock, but inevitably, my work as an actor in "A Wilder Christmas" at Peccadillo Theatre Company offers the solace of work but the challenge of embracing the human struggle as embodied in the two one acts that make up the evening.

My sister was not an easy lady; life was hard on her and she could be hard on those around her who most wanted to help and support her.  But at the same time, she had an innate sweetness, a kindness and a sentimental heart that endeared her to everyone.  It is difficult for me not to have regrets about what I might have done, or said, while she was living; it is a struggle not to beat up on myself for not reaching out more, letting her know I loved her and was here for her.  And of course, it is regrets such as these that permeate the human stories of "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha."  Wilder understood that the most  profound and painful reality of life is that we don't embrace it and engage in it as deeply as we should.  He also knew that these lessons have to be learned and relearned throughout our lives, because, after all, we are only human.

Mom, my brother Alex, me and Clea
I share my grief with my Mom and my older brother, Alex, my nieces Katy and Keira, and my nephew Daniel, and all our family and extended family.  This holiday season will be one of coming together, holding each other tight, and remembering Clea.  I will also have the gift of the work of theatre, a place of great comfort for me, amidst fine actors bringing to the stage Thornton Wilder's urgent message to love each other, appreciate each other, and savor life for the all too brief time we are on this earth.  Join us at the Theatre at St. Clement's and commune with us at "A Wilder Christmas."  

Happy Thanksgiving.  Hold your loved ones close.  Appreciate every, every minute.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Great Authors For the Holidays!

It's been a long time since I have spent the holidays in New York.  We actors go where the work takes us; this year, it keeps me at home in Manhattan!  After a hectic audition season this fall, I was offered two productions simultaneously, both early works by two great playwrights.

Anton Chekhov
An actor friend put me in touch with Columbia MFA directing candidate Inés Braun, who was casting her project of Anton Chekhov's "Ivanov."  Inés, a dynamic creative force from Argentina, cast me in the role of Lébedev, the alcoholic but well-meaning father of Sasha, who falls in love with the manic-depressive, 'Hamlet-esque' Ivanov.  It's an interesting play, definitely an early effort for Chekhov, but a fascinating glimpse into his gift for characterization and his uncanny perception of human foibles.  "Ivanov" will have three presentations, November 20-22, and I am excited to be a part of Inés' growth as a director and to share the work with her esteemed teachers, directors Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick.  It's also so nice to dig into some classic dramatic material after a pretty steady diet of frothy musical comedy!  Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

Simultaneous with rehearsals for "Ivanov" I am working on the holiday offering of The Peccadillo Theatre Company, the company in residence at the Theatre at St. Clement's.  Peccadillo's mission is the presentation of great American plays, and they have chosen two early one acts by Thornton Wilder, "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha" to present as "A Wilder Christmas."  Just as with the Chekhov, this is a stunning look at the developing voice of one of the great playwrights.

Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder plumbed the depths of human experience from an existentialist's point of view, and presented his stories in highly theatrical ways.  "The Long Christmas Dinner" tells the story of 90 years in the history of an American family, played out in front of the audience's very eyes; "Pullman Car Hiawatha" is an early experiment in the conventions and devices Wilder perfected in "Our Town"--including a narrator called 'The Stage Manager' and the use of simple props and chairs to establish the world of the play.  These plays are the essence of ensemble acting, and I am thrilled to be a part of an extremely talented cast under the meticulous direction of Artistic Director Dan Wackerman.  "A Wilder Christmas" plays December 3 through January 3 at the Theatre at St. Clement's in the heart of the theatre district.

Various kinds of theatre challenge different sets of actor muscles and as much as I love doing the dynamic work of musical theatre, I am having a great time using my more classical actor talents to bring these Chekhov and Wilder characters to life.  I am also enjoying being a part of the visions of two passionate directors, one well established and the other beginning her training at one of the great directing programs.  In the process, I get to learn more about myself and my work.  A pretty great Christmas gift.