Photograph: Melani Lust
Above: Westport Country Playhouse
I’ve been blessed with the gift of many superb artists who have created great theater on our stage during my tenure,” says Michael Barker, managing director for the past nine seasons, “including Director Nicholas Martin—The Circle, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Show-Off; John Tillinger and his many stunning revivals of the comedies of Alan Ayckbourn; Associate Director David Kennedy, who directed most recently the award-winning The Invisible Hand, as well as a wide range of others; Phylicia Rashad, who gave us a flawless production of A Raisin in the Sun, as well as talented actors, designers, composers, music directors and others.” Here are a few of his favorite moments on stage.
“The rehearsals and performances of John Logan’s Red were some of the most fulfilling days I ever had in any theater. Patrick Andrews as the young man and Stephen Rowe as artist Mark Rothko seemed to embody their roles from the inside out. Patrick had appeared in the role in its first regional incarnation at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and Stephen had understudied Alfred Molina on Broadway. It was a gift to our audiences that both of them wanted to explore more depths in these challenging roles. Of course, a play about making art is catnip to theater folk, but I particularly loved exploring the crossover between our art and the painter’s art. The performances, which just kept growing in magnitude and nuance, were thrilling to watch and edit and have conversations about, from first rehearsal to closing night.”
“Another personal favorite was our production of Room Service, an old screwball comedy from the thirties that required a whole stage of brilliant farceurs; and before casting began, I was worried that I’d never find them. They needed to each be very special but also work as part of a seamless fabric of clockwork zaniness. Almost from the first audition at Tara Rubin Casting in New York, we began to mine a gold streak of formidable, mostly young, comic actors of scope. Rehearsals were like a party, which is unusual for farce, where every move and line needs careful calibration and the contribution of all hands on deck. In this case, the actors loved working with one another so much they’d call castmates after our rehearsals or go out for drinks and suggest new ideas to one another. Every morning when I came into the rehearsal hall, they’d all have this mischievous look in their eyes and one would say, “We have a new idea. Wanna see it?” They were invariably perfect! I basically just sat there editing while each of them spouted fountains of hilarious business and line readings. Audiences loved the comedy, and I remember being particularly thrilled to hear from a friend in the audience that Gene Wilder called it, ‘Wonderful.’”
Lettice and Lovage
“The rehearsals of our production of Peter Shaffer’s comedy Lettice and Lovage were fraught with our leading lady’s health problems. Though convinced she would pull through, two days before the first public performance she was rushed from her dressing room to Norwalk Hospital. I had to replace her immediately. Paxton Whitehead, a veteran actor and Playhouse favorite, suggested an excellent actress living in California with whom he had worked named Kandis Chappell. I called her early California time after a, basically, sleepless night, and to my amazement she agreed to get on a plane later that day. We cancelled the first two previews; she arrived; and we went into a whirlwind of rehearsals. She was dazzling in the role, and with the help of an intrepid intern and a little earpiece, pulled off a stunning comic performance, followed by a standing ovation. She literally saved the day. I’ve never been more grateful to a performer in my life. It was above and beyond.”
A MOMENT WITH THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Theater endures because people want contact with other human beings who are acting out stories,” says Mark Lamos, artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, which was established in 1931. “This is primal. It goes all the way back to tribal customs in basically every culture—the need to see oneself represented in a story, the need to exalt the human spirit, the need to learn lessons, the validation your life receives when you see it presented in a communal experience. And that’s the other important thing about live theater: It only happens in a room filled with people experiencing the story all together.”
In a phone-obsessed era, Lamos’s strategy for the theater is critical. For one, he’s presenting a wide range of experiences—classics, world premieres, comedy, drama and beyond—with some of the finest talent in the country “to stretch the art form, to revive great American and British plays of the last century in beautifully designed, thoughtfully directed and brilliantly acted productions.” Lamos adds that he wants to “increase the size and diversity of the work on stage and the people in our audiences. The greater the diversity of age, culture, background and economic difference, the better the ‘conversation’ between the artistry and the audience.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
BRILLIANT STARS WHO HAVE CROSSED THE STAGE IN THE PAST 20 YEARS
Leon Addison Brown
Harry Connick Jr.
Neil Patrick Harris
Melissa Joan Hart
Philip Seymour Hoffman
James Earl Jones
Robert Sean Leonard
Jo Sullivan Loesser
Leslie Odom Jr.
David Hyde Pierce