Stage Lyons: St. Louis theater veterans Wayne Salomon and Bobby Miller reunite this month for The Lyons

Aug 15, 2013 at 4:00 am
Wayne Salomon and Bobby Miller.
Wayne Salomon and Bobby Miller. Jennifer Silverberg

"Let me tell you Bobby's best celebrity story," Wayne Salomon says.

Salomon and his devoted friend Bobby Miller are not only each other's best buddies; they are each other's biggest boosters, happier to talk up the other than themselves.

"1969," continues Salomon. "Tennessee Williams had a mental breakdown, and he was in Barnes Hospital. Bobby was an assured nineteen-year-old, full of himself. He went down to Barnes, found out where his room was and had a conversation with the hospitalized Tennessee Williams."

Miller smiles at the distant memory then fills out the anecdote. "It wasn't quite like that," he clarifies. "I tried to visit Williams every day for about a week, but they wouldn't give me his room number. One day I made my usual attempt. As I approached the front desk, I saw Tennessee sitting alone in the day room. He was dressed in a flannel shirt, a cardigan sweater and baggy pants, and he looked quite healthy. There was a huge volume of T. S. Eliot on his lap, which he was ignoring because he was transfixed watching this rock group, the Animals, on The Mike Douglas Show.

"So I gently approached him, and he seemed delighted to have a visitor. He invited me to sit next to him. This was the week of the Vietnam Moratorium [in the fall of 1969] in Washington, D.C. Protesters were descending on the capital from all over America. He said, 'Why aren't you in Washington with the young people?' And I said, 'I would be, but I'm acting in a production of your play, Orpheus Descending,' which I was doing out at Lindenwood. I spent about a half-hour with him, and he couldn't have been nicer. He was not ill. In fact, he checked out a few days later. That is my best celebrity story."

Salomon has celebrity stories, too. He even has pre-celebrity stories. Like when he directed Godspell at John Burroughs School in 1989 and the student cast included such future stars as Sarah Clarke (24, the Twilight films), Heather Goldenhersh (Tony nominee for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men). But right now Salomon is recalling his own memories from high school. Back in 1964, when he was junior class president at Clayton, he met a brash freshman named Bobby Miller. Thanks to their shared love of theater, they formed an instant bond that remains intact.

"When Bobby was a senior," Salomon wryly recalls, "he played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Back then Bobby was a huge Method actor. So on the afternoon of opening night, he went home from class, fixed a bath and then sat in the bathtub for four hours..."

"In the dark," Miller interjects.

"In the dark, so that when he went back to school that night for the performance, he would be wrinkly." Salomon turns to his friend. "I don't think I ever asked you if it worked, or if the wrinkles went away by the time you got to school?"

"I had to hurry," Miller replies. "I kept trying to speed everybody up. 'Let's go!' Because my wrinkles were fading."

As the banter continues, a listener cannot help but wish that a local theater would persuade these two sixtysomethings to appear together in The Sunshine Boys. Just now, however, their focus is not on Neil Simon; they're talking up Nicky Silver. Miller and Salomon are about to begin rehearsals for a production of Silver's dark 2011 comedy, The Lyons. Miller recounts its genesis:

"So last year I get a call from Stellie [Siteman, Max & Louie Productions artistic director], and she says, 'Bobby, I just saw a show in New York, and you have to do it.' The Lyons. So I read the script, and it's hilarious. The father, Ben, could be another in my long line of cranky old Jews. Plus he doesn't get out of bed. This sounds ideal. I called her back. I said, 'Stellie, if you get Wayne Salomon to direct this, I'm in.' Stellie said, 'Wayne would be great, and so would...' I said, 'No, not so would. I'll do the play if Wayne directs it.'

"When you have a short rehearsal schedule, casting is everything," he continues. "I knew that with Wayne directing, the play would be impeccably cast. So Wayne read the play, and when he said yes, I suddenly realized that The Lyons will be the first time we have worked together in the theater in twenty-six years."

Flash back to 1987 and Salomon and Miller's last joint stage venture, acting in the Theatre Project Company's mounting of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. For ten years the two had worked together at TPC — sometimes as co-actors, other times with Salomon directing Miller — in Beckett, Chekhov, Mamet, Pinter, Shakespeare. They had taken pride in the company's rise to prominence and had despaired during its decline. TPC was more than a long-running gig; this feisty, hardscrabble ensemble had become part of their identities.

Theatre Project Company was the brainchild of general manager Christine Smith (a granddaughter of Luther Ely Smith, the St. Louis attorney who sparked the riverfront renewal that led to the design and construction of the Gateway Arch) and artistic director Fontaine Syer. Both Smith and Syer graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and came to St. Louis with nothing more than a crazy idea — to create a resident professional theater company that would produce plays in an Off-Broadway manner.

"I look back on that time," Syer says, "and think to myself, 'We must have been insane.' But you're always a little insane if you're going to start a theater."

TPC began modestly in 1975 with each woman contributing $150 in seed money. They staged the company's first two plays that season in a bar in Laclede's Landing. The following year they mounted a four-play season at the Learning Center in the Central West End. Sue Greenberg, who had just graduated from Washington University with a degree in art history and urban studies, was one of the first to sign on.

"I got involved totally by accident," says Greenberg, who since 1992 has been the Muny's company manager. "I started selling ads for the program. Very soon after, Fontaine said, 'Would you like to stage manage?' I said, 'Sure.' Then I asked, 'What's that?'"

She learned fast.

"We talk a lot about the Theatre Project Company and how cool we all were," Salomon says. "But Sue Greenberg was the heart of that company. For every one of us she was the rock. She ran a rehearsal hall like nobody I've ever seen."

Salomon auditioned for that first full season (1976-77) and was cast as Adam, a servant in As You Like It. "From that minor role," he says, "I insinuated myself with the company." He became associate artistic director ("a glorified title for office boy"). It was almost a short-lived stint, because audiences were meager.

Salomon remembers meeting with the crew from TPC at Christine Smith's house in Lafayette Square on August 16, 1977, to discuss folding the company. Salomon can recall the exact date because Elvis died the same day. Death, it seems, was in the air.

"They were thinking about folding the company," says Salomon. "I tried to explain to Fontaine and Christine that they had succeeded in creating the company that some of us who lived here dreamed we might create. As diplomatically as I could, I suggested that perhaps they were working with the wrong actors and that they might like to work with my friends. I also said that the Learning Center was not an ideal location for a theater and that we needed to find a really exciting place. Christine went out looking, and that place became Union Station."

The new theater was located in the former ladies waiting room; the elegant Grand Hall became the theater lobby. "It was exciting," Greenberg says, "because this was our space and we were figuring it out. Behind the theater we had offices that turned into dressing rooms at night. Then in the back, which would be on 18th Street, was a restroom, which we called the Black Hole. If the actors wanted to use this bathroom during the show, they had to use a bucket of water to flush the toilet."

Midway through that debut Union Station season, Salomon directed The Taming of the Shrew. He cast Syer as the shrewish Katherine then asked Miller to play Petruchio, Katherine's suitor. "I hadn't acted in four years," Miller recalls. "I had left theater to pursue a career as a film editor. I had just gotten fired from my first studio job when Wayne called to say, 'Come do Shakespeare with me at the train station.' I was like, 'The train station? What are you talking about?' He said, 'We're going to do Taming of the Shrew. There's this woman, Fontaine Syer. You've got to meet her.' And that's how Wayne brought me back into the theater."

Shrew was the first of several plays — The Homecoming, Catch-22, Coming Attractions, Much Ado About Nothing — that during the next decade would feature Miller and Syer and be directed by Salomon.

"There's always a positive atmosphere when Wayne is directing," Greenberg explains. "During rehearsals most directors will say, 'Stop, let's go back.' Wayne never said the word stop. He always said, 'Good,' and good meant stop."

One of the highlights of the second Union Station season was a Syer-directed Waiting for Godot with Miller and Salomon as the two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon.

"Bobby and Wayne were absolutely central in almost every conceivable way to the theater's best stuff," Syer says. "Their collaboration was an inspiration for all of us. Their connection is this indestructible thing."

That same year, 1979, TPC took a hit when Amtrak moved out of Union Station, leaving the theater without heat. The scrappy ensemble took the setback in stride. "The joke was that that the best seats were the ones near the space heaters," Miller says. "There were bums sleeping in the station, but our audience was loyal and rabid." The third Union Station season played to 86 percent capacity; the fourth, to 98 percent capacity.

Then, when nearly every performance was selling out, TPC was evicted from Union Station. "They were going to renovate the place," Greenberg says, "but there was a long delay. We could have done another year or two there." Instead TPC became nomads. It opened its 1981-82 season at the Missouri Botanical Garden then staged the next five plays at Washington University and UMSL. But even when homeless, there were positives. Corporate contributions more than doubled.

For Miller and Syer, life imitated art. Just as Katherine and Petruchio grow to love each other in Taming of the Shrew, so, too, did Miller and Syer become inseparable. They married in September 1982 — then promptly began rehearsals for Bent, the second show of the 1982-83 season.

"Martin Sherman's play is beautiful and brilliant," Miller says, "but the story's about Nazis and homosexuals, and Fontaine was apprehensive about the response. To her surprise, audiences and reviewers embraced Bent. After it closed, I remember her exhaling and saying, 'I was wrong about that one. Now what are we gonna do? Oh yeah. That little Catholic one-act.' "

They didn't see it coming.

In January 1983 Syer was to appear in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Christopher Durang's satire about Roman Catholic education. "We expected Sister Mary to be the sleeper hit of the season," Greenberg naively recalls. That was before John May, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, denounced Durang's comedy as "a vile diatribe against all things Catholic" and called for a boycott.

"We refused to be censored by the archbishop," Syer says. "The production was an enormous rush, like being on the top of a rollercoaster. After playing for four years to 150 seats in the train station, now we were in the 700-seat Edison Theatre, and the place was packed every night. I was on the Charles Kuralt Sunday Morning program. I was on with Phil Donahue. It was a heady thing.

"But we had worked out a deal with a real estate holder to move Theatre Project Company into his building downtown. When Sister Mary happened, he said, 'No, no, I have no connection with those people.' All of a sudden, corporate relationships that I had been developing for years wouldn't return my calls. All of a sudden they forgot that they had been giving us $25,000 a year. Over the next six months, between a third and a half of my board resigned. I got angry enough after the Sister Mary experience to stick with Project Company for another five years. Then I just couldn't do it any more."

Syer resigned at the end of the 1987-88 season.

"When Fontaine left, a lot of people were upset and sad," Miller recalls, "but boy, was she happy. She immediately started freelance directing around the country at theaters with resources and budgets. One of the reasons she was so successful was because of all those years in St. Louis when she had to figure out how to mount a production on a shoestring. That makes you very creative."

In 1991, three years after Syer's departure, the company ceased to exist. "Looking back on Theatre Project Company now," Miller says, "at the outset we began as young, raw talent, but we developed into polished, finessed actors and directors. We did some amazing work in the post-train station years."

"Yes, there was wonderful work later on," Salomon agrees, "but we also always felt like we were fighting the Man. The establishment." ("We couldn't get into the club," Syer adds.) Nevertheless, more than two decades later TPC's legacy and mystique reside in such alums as Lee Patton Chiles, Joe Dreyer, William Grivna, Joe Hanrahan, Ron Himes, Joneal Joplin, Chris Limber, Jerry Vogel and David Wassilak, who continue to participate in St. Louis theater. Today it is almost impossible to peruse a local theater playbill without reading a reference to TPC in the credits.

"Two years ago I did a one-woman show at the Rep [The Year of Magical Thinking]," Syer says. "During that visit people talked to me as if the Theatre Project Company had been walking on water. You'd think it had been this blazing star in the firmament of adventuresome production. And all I could think was, 'Where were you back then? Where was your checkbook?' For me personally, those twelve years were glorious, but they were also heartbreaking."

As TPC's impending demise became inevitable, Salomon and Miller turned to other priorities. In 1987 Salomon accepted a part-time position at John Burroughs School teaching seventh-grade speech. One year later he was made chair of the theater department, a position and vocation he still cherishes.

"It wasn't until Wayne came to Burroughs in my junior year that I developed an interest in acting," says Sarah Clarke, known today for her roles as Nina Myers in 24 and Renée (Bella's mother) in the three Twilight films. "Until I met Wayne, I thought acting was imitation. He made me understand that acting is a process that involves make-believe and imagination. Wayne was this wildly enthusiastic, intelligent, fun individual who would encourage you to find what you love and then do it."

Heather Goldenhersh, another of Salomon's students (who would receive a Tony nomination for her haunting portrayal of Sister James in John Patrick Shanley's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt), adds, "When I started at Burroughs, I had no idea that I wanted to go into acting. Wayne was my great influence. He was like a dad or an older brother, someone I could confide in. When I graduated from Burroughs, Wayne basically dictated the colleges I was to apply to. I got my first choice, Juilliard. Then when Wayne came to my fourth-year performance, he was disappointed in the program and in the schooling I had received. That's the thing about Wayne. He can be completely honest and upfront, but always in a loving way that is not harmful."

This fall, John Burroughs will open the Wayne Salomon Theatre in the new $45 million performing-arts center.

In 1989 (the same year that Salomon directed Clarke, Goldenhersh and their classmate Jon Hamm in Godspell) Miller started a full-service motion-picture and video production company that has served scores of national and regional clients, from Anheuser-Busch to Volkswagen. Miller and Syer divorced in 1992, by which time she was associate artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. ("We stopped making sense as a couple," Syer says, "but we loved each other for a long time and always will.")

For the next twenty years Miller avoided theater completely. Then in 2007 he directed I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at the Westport Playhouse. A year later he acted at New Jewish Theatre in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and followed that with a return to Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, this time at HotCity. "Doing Glengarry again was when I knew I was back," Miller says. "But wouldn't you know: I returned to the theater at just about the same time Wayne pulled out, so we missed each other. Until now."

Tuesday, July 30, 6:30 p.m. The cast of The Lyons — Aaron Orion Baker, Charlie Barron, Julie Layton, Meghan Maguire, Judi Mann — convenes around a rectangular table in a second floor rehearsal hall at the Regional Arts Commission. Bobby Miller was right about one thing: Salomon has cast the show impeccably. Actors who don't know each other introduce themselves. Others, already old campaigners, embrace. But between Miller and Salomon there is no sense of anticipation, no acknowledgment that 26 years of theater separation are about to end. The scenic designer passes out renderings of the set; the sound designer discusses music cues. Now Salomon takes charge. All eyes (except those of Miller, who focuses on peeling an obdurate orange) turn to their director.

"I don't know what the play's about yet," Wayne Salomon tells his cast. "I get almost everything about the play from you. During rehearsals I will spend virtually no time looking at the script. I'll spend all my time watching you. That's about it. I think we can start to read."