RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Missourian Lanford Wilson comes to the Rep to stage his new play, Book of Days, with longtime collaborator Marshall Mason. A look behind the scenes at the men who changed American theater.

Mason gets to that center through a slow, incremental investigation of individual scenes. "My admonishment to take their time comes from trying to contain the automatic urge the actor has to perform, to get results quickly. So much of theater is geared toward results done by people who are themselves — talk about anxiety — producers, writers, directors. All are terribly concerned that the end product must be good, so they must see the results as soon as possible. The result of going for results is that real deep investigation does not get done, so you have these superficial performances we're all very familiar with."

Mason and Wilson believe that the actor and acting are at the heart of theater. Says Jonathan Hogan of the two, "For them it's an art," as opposed to "move here; cross here." With too many directors, Hogan has observed, "It's mostly I direct and you act. You do your work and I'll do mine. With Marshall, you work on a scene all day long. You take from the circumstance and what's going on in the scene so the movement grows out of the scene."

"My objective," explains Mason, "is to try to get the actors to the point where they can really live the performance onstage instead of thinking consciously about what their hands are doing or what gestures ... the gestures will be appropriate to what's happening if they are born of need, if they come out of the character's need to express him or herself."

In those moments in rehearsal when the actor is lost, as when Campbell and Regan found themselves groping for their characters' motivations, Mason finds the core of the process: "If you know what you're doing, it's too cut-and-dried, it's intellectual, it's not coming from the creative part of the imagination. Being lost, feeling vulnerable — in real life that's how we feel a lot of the time. You don't know what's going to happen next. You don't know what the answer is. You don't know what you should say.

"Reality tends to be a bit boring sometimes — that's one of the things actors have to be brave enough to encounter. I slow them down because until they know what's going on in the moment, until they know why they say what they say, or why they move where they move, or what the other person is trying to do to them, or what they want from the other person — you have to go slowly to discover all that. And then, once you know — in this scene I know what I'm doing, and I move here because of that, and I say this line because of what just happened, and the connections are made — once you know that, it's amazing how quickly things happen."

Caught up in this process of the here and now, Mason doesn't have much time for thinking back on the golden years at the Circle Rep: "I'm not a person who lives very much in the past. I want to stay in the present and look to the future. It's easy to do that when I'm working on what may be his best play. Maybe the best is yet to come."

Lanford Wilson's best does not come in the morning. He was up late the night before doing an impromptu run-through of a scene between Hogan and John Lepard, who plays town minister Bobby Groves and is one of the members of the original Purple Rose cast. The aftermath of the after-hours work is a red-eyed, disheveled Wilson, badly in need of a cigarette when he sits down for an interview.

He's gracious despite his allergic-to-morning symptoms. As Woolf says, there's no cynicism as he discusses the play and the process. "There are two things that are just great," he says about hearing the dialogue he's invented spoken in rehearsal. "It's when they say it exactly the way you heard it in your head — oh yes! — and when they say it better, when they find something you didn't know was there.

"Boris McGiver has a speech in the play where he's telling how the accident happened. It's an incredibly complicated speech — it looks very simple on the page — but really he's lying and telling the truth at the same time. He's making half of it up, and telling half of what really happened — and some of the speech is delivered to the audience and some to the characters onstage. It's incredibly complicated. Also, what is he feeling during that? He is telling the story, feeling incredibly guilty — which he is trying to cover — and incredible sorrow, which he is also trying to cover.

"I had heard the speech done essentially flat in Michigan. The guy did it perfectly well but essentially "blah, blah, blah, blah.' Boris did the speech. He broke down twice. The sheriff had to hold him while he was bawling his eyes out. He just amazed everyone. I think everyone in the room straightened their spine — he raised the bar about two notches.

"When we go out for a cigarette break, no one ever talks about the work. When they went out after the speech, everybody was, "Why'd you cast him? He's got no imagination. He's got no talent.'" Such talk is nothing but an actor's dodge, Wilson explains, ironic phrases that really mean "Holy shit, was that good."

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