I am playing another Father.
We are getting ready to open Jon Robin Baitz’ beautiful play OTHER DESERT CITIES, and in a conversation with Director Tom Butterworth, he casually noted, “Well, you’ve played a lot of Fathers.” And it got me to wondering exactly how many, and if there was any particular reason why this might be.
Back in the old days of my professional career, I used to play more lawyers than anything else….I was the Assistant D.A. on a lot of Matlock episodes, and one of the other regulars and I joked one day that we should open up a TV Law Firm…. our motto would be, “Never Won A Case!” I was a mobster on General Hospital, and my most infamous deed was trying to blow up a house so I could kill the child of my foes, who was inside. How did I get from these to being a Father?
I took a look back, and was surprised to find that in the last four years, I’ve done sixteen shows. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was one, but it doesn’t count in this tally because I directed it, rather than acted in it. Of the remaining fifteen shows I was in, I was the Father in eleven of them: THE SHADOW BOX, CANDIDA, NUTS, FROST/NIXON (yes, Nixon was a Father, too), DEATH OF A SALESMAN, ALL MY SONS, LEND ME A TENOR, ON GOLDEN POND, TIME STANDS STILL, now OTHER DESERT CITIES, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. When I was cast in TKAM, my sister sent me a note that said, “Ah…. The Ultimate Father.” Of the rest, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, A TIME TO KILL, and A FEW GOOD MEN, one could easily say that my guys were at least mentors or father figures, if not the real thing. DEATHTRAP.....no fatherly connection at all.
In the 10 years before this time, I played the Father in only four shows. Why the change? Other than that it seems clear I will no longer be cast as Brick, but have moved on to Big Daddy?
First let me say that to have had the chance to play any of these roles is a blessing; to have done all of these is an embarrassment of riches. I feel fortunate, indeed. And, too, I have no control over what the theatres choose to do with their seasons, although in fairness, I have been known to suggest a show or two that I have on my bucket list to some poor innocent board member whom I may have cornered in a lobby…..
But I do know that in some measure this has been a conscious choice of roles, what to go for, and what to bypass. And the truth is, I really do know why. Six years ago this month I had a health issue that caused me to very nearly check out: do the permanent Exit, Stage Left. I’m pretty sure that that brush with mortality left me more introspective, wanting to examine my life, and get in touch with the things that had had made me and that mattered. And, you know, this Father/Son thing, it isn’t something you grow out of.
Like so many, I really didn’t have a Dad as a role model, and when I became a father myself, that was when I discovered that the kids didn’t come with a manual….. I really had no clue. So, there are mistakes I’ve made as a real Dad that replicated the ones I endured as a Son; and while in my heart I know how desperately I wanted to be great at the job, at the end of the day, if I could go back, I would want to do it better.
So now I play The Father. And I try to take in from these masterful playwrights what it is to do it well, and what it is to do it poorly, and I try to understand, both as a father and as a son. Theatre can do that, you know. And we never know, despite our own quest, what gift the art can bestow on somebody else through our work. One of the very best things that has ever been said to me was from a friend, a teacher, and writer who had taught DEATH OF A SALESMAN for years…. knew it very well, loved it. On the occasion of seeing our production at Curtain Call, he came to me in the lobby, tears in his eyes, put his hand up and pulled my ear to his mouth, and whispered, “You are my Father.”
So now I play The Father once again in OTHER DESERT CITIES, a most wonderful play, and while as I said, I honor the chance I had to play all of those Fathers before, I have never been quite so excited as to play Lyman Wyeth, amongst a cast of world class actors. This is a Father who would walk through hell for his children, and has. I hope everyone who canwill come see this production. You never know, I might be your Father, too.
Oh, and next up for me, a staged reading of I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. Guess what I’m playing….
OTHER DESERT CITIES runs February 5-20 at the Powerhouse Theatre in New Canaan, CT. For tickets and information, visit www.tpnc.org, or call 203-966-7371.
Will Jeffries is an actor/director who occasionally contributes to OnStage. He was the recipient of the first OnStage Award as leading actor for his performance as Atticus Finch, the Father,
in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Downtown Cabaret Mainstage Theatre.
Photo: Bridgeport Theatre Company