Stage and screen veteran Michael Learned pairs with her equally seasoned pal Granville Van Dusen as an unlikely couple in a new production of Kathleen Clark’s play Southern Comforts, directed by Jules AaronÂ at the International City Theatre (ICT) in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
Learned, whose extensive television career garnered her four Emmy awards for her roles on the popular seriesÂ The Waltons and on the hospital dramaÂ Nurse, relishes the opportunity to perform on stage. “I just feel more comfortable in the theater,” she says. Backstage at ICT, she curls up in a comfortable armchair, carefully cupping a hot mug in her hands as if she were lounging in her own living room.
“In the theater, everybody hangs out,” she says, gesturing towards Van Dusen, sitting opposite her on a couch. Learned enjoys this sense of community among her peers which she finds lacking in the television industry. “In television, the most important person has the biggest trailer closest to the set. And the least important person has the smallest trailer the farthest away from the set. And that’s always bothered me,” she says.
Van Dusen whole-heartedly agrees. “I don’t find working in television to be appealing at all,” he says. Considering he has four decades of television work under his belt, this may come as a surprise to some. “I found it appealing in the beginning because it was so interesting a business, so new. But eventually it gets tiresome. I mean, you go on set and work for a half an hour but sit for four hours in a cubicle,” he says. At the moment, he looks just as comfortable as his co-star. as they chat backstage while sitting on heavily cushioned couches.
Van Dusen retired from television four years ago. Focusing on his work in theater has made him much happier. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with terrific people since I made that decision,” he says, “and it makes my decision seem even smarter.”
Learned and Van Dusen share an offstage friendship as well as an onstage relationship. Their comedic chemistry is apparent as they tease one another about their friendship. “It’s terrible,” she says of having to work with Van Dusen. “What’s worse is we have to ride to the theater together.”
Van Dusen chimes in. “We fight. Actually, we don’t talk anymore,” he says, feigning disdain.
Then both actors laugh. “It’s great, honestly,” says Learned, ending the volley of fake insults. “It’s a gift to work with him.”
“I feel the same way,” he concurs. “Michael is responsible for my even being here.” According to Van Dusen, he learned ofÂ Southern Comforts from Learned. “I read the script and I liked it. And then, knowing she would do it, I said “˜I will do it but only if you will,’” he says.
Both were drawn to the play because of the writing. Learned knows Clark professionally and admires her as a writer and as a person. “She’s one of those people you feel you know because she’s so down to earth and kind. Don’t you agree?” she remarks, looking over at Van Dusen.
Simultaneously, the two find the same phrase to describe Clark.Â “She’s salt of the earth,” they say at once. After a laugh, the two begin discussing Clark and her script. “She writes human situations with a great sense of humor,” says Van Dusen.
InÂ Southern Comforts, a fiery Southern widow, Amanda Cross (Learned), finds romance with a somewhat curmudgeonly widower from the North, Gus Klingman (Van Dusen). The play follows the aging couple as they struggle to make room for each other in their lives and open their hearts to one another. Although on the surface the two characters seem vastly different, Learned and Van Dusen find that their dynamic works brilliantly well. “On the face of it I would say they would be an unlikely couple because he’s very taciturn and she’s ebullient,” Van Dusen says of the romance. In addition to personality differences, the two of them have to contend with their different backgrounds.
Despite their differences, Learned says she finds their lives are actually somewhat “similar in that both had unhappy marriages and have been alone for a long time.” From having been hurt by their previous marriages, and through their romance, they learn how to grow into a positive relationship.
Van Dusen explains Gus has been closed off to women because of his previous marriage. “Amanda comes into his life and opens a window he didn’t even know existed. He begins to blossom under her nurture. She doesn’t even know she’s nurturing and he doesn’t know he’s being nurtured, but he just keeps coming out of his shell. I think that’s fascinating,” Van Dusen says.
Learned explains her character has been hurt, too. “She was in a marriage with a very troubled guy, Willis, who just came back from World War II. She says, “˜A lot of the boys I knew didn’t come back and the Willis I knew didn’t come back either,’” says Learned. Unlike Gus, however, Amanda did not become hardened against the opposite sex. “I don’t think she closed her heart off; that’s what’s appealing to me about her. Even though she’s pushy, she’s got heart,” Learned says.
Van Dusen thinks that pushiness is part of what draws his character to Amanda. “All of a sudden this woman comes in and she is in his face, demanding answers and making him think. All of that is like somebody has thrown a pail of cold water in his face,” he says.
Learned thinks that Amanda is drawn to Gus because of his willingness to open up to her. Although Gus is also a veteran who still has shell-shock to some degree, he does not close himself off to her like her previous husband did. “He’s willing to talk. And behind this faÃ§ade of gruffness there is a very sweet man,” she explains.
This new-found romance tests the emotions of both characters, providing for moments of comedy as well as tenderness. Learned says, “There is one scene in the play where my character is terribly upset and hurt but it’s hilarious. I play it real. The assistant stage manager was laughing so hard she was crying. I think the daring thing for me in this is to be willing to not go for the comedy but to go for the truth, and then hope to God people will laugh.”
Van Dusen responds, “I think the basis of good comedy is always truth. The minute I think somebody is trying to make me laugh, I lose interest.” According to the co-stars, the play’s honesty and truthfulness are its strengths.
Learned and Van Dusen are confident the show will appeal to all ages. Rather than focusing on the age of the characters, the play is primarily concerned with the nuances of their relationship. “Young people go through the same things,” Van Dusen says of the characters’ relationship.
“It’s more about man and woman than it is about old people,” says Learned. “It’s kind of about people who have already had a life and the adjustments you have to make to have a passionate relationship at an older age.”
“And finishing out your life together, happily,” Van Dusen chimes in.
As Learned and Van Dusen sit backstage discussing their play before rehearsal, they seem engaged and excited by their characters, a testament to the quality of the material.
“I think audiences will enjoy this play a lot,” Learned says confidently.
Southern Comforts, produced by caryn desai, opens March 18; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through April 10. Tickets: $37-$44. International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; 562.436.4610 or internationalcitytheatre.org.