Married Couple Tackles Two Wars in Year of the Rabbit

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Keliher Walsh and Peter Mackenzie in "Year of the Rabbit"

A husband/wife theatrical team. It’s not so unusual that both are actors and have performed in productions together. It might not be so unusual that one would direct another. But how often do you find one directing the other, who wrote the full-length play? Such is the current situation for Keliher Walsh and James Eckhouse. They have jumped in head first in preparation for the premiere of Year of the Rabbit, a play that examines wartime experiences from Vietnam and Afghanistan, at Ensemble Studio Theater-LA.

All It Takes is a Spark

The duo met 30 years ago at the Guthrie Theater, with Eckhouse as a reader and Walsh auditioning for Our Town. It was love at first sight, they recall. She landed the role of Emily under the direction of Alan Schneider, and shortly thereafter he was cast in a play directed by Garland Wright.

Eckhouse smiles broadly when he announces, “We’ve been married 30 years.”

Keliher Walsh

Walsh quickly quips, “And we should get medals.”

“It was the coldest winter on record,” Eckhouse says.

“It was 80 below,” Walsh maintains. “We had to get married. It was the only way we could stay warm.” Hearty laughter bounces off the walls in the EST-LA office foyer.

Before this kismet moment occurred, their lives were very different. Walsh was a Navy brat whose father was an admiral, “and we lived anywhere and everywhere there was water.” Her finger zig-zags every direction. Living in Italy at an early age, she spoke the native language before learning English.

She grew up during the Vietnam War. “I knew so many friends who served during the war, and my brothers almost went. My father didn’t agree with what was happening over there [in Vietnam], which was controversial with his position in the military. My mother was a total wreck — seeing how her boys could go overseas with guns in their hands.” The same would be true for Walsh herself years later, when she was a mother faced with another war.

For Eckhouse, raised in Chicago, “I loved acting, taking classes at Second City with John Belushi and Bill Murray, doing plays in high school. But in my family it was kind of anathema to think of being a professional actor. One didn’t do that — dirty people, these actors.” Off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he planned to become a physicist. At the same exact time, “Keliher was across the river at Boston University earning her BFA.”

What shifted his study train from physicist to acting? “Pete [A.R.] Gurney [the playwright] took me aside after directing me in a couple of plays. He asked what I was doing there. ‘I’m going to be a physicist.’ He replied, ‘No, you’re not. You’re an actor.’ And I realized he was right. I dropped out, returned to Chicago, worked at some theater companies, then went to Juilliard in New York to get training and my BFA.”

James Eckhouse

After the paths of Walsh and Eckhouse crossed at the Guthrie, they moved to New York to become founding members of an innovative, experimental theater company called Dear Knows, focusing on narrative texts with a core of friends from Yale and Juilliard. Walsh expounds.

“We began with James Joyce’s Dubliners (short stories) and then did other works, but we didn’t change the text. The James Joyce estate wouldn’t let us. We took on these wonderful pieces, and performed at the West Bank with Lewis Black opening the show. We had some wild, woolly, fun times.”

Eckhouse adds, “We were all over the place, performing at the Lincoln Center, for Olympia Dukakis who had us at the Whole Theater Company, toured up in Maine”¦To be part of Dear Knows was huge, and we learned a lot.”

The New York experience for both of them was fruitful with roles on Broadway and Off-Broadway. Among their credits: Eckhouse in The Actor’s Nightmare/Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You at Playwrights Horizons, Emily at Manhattan Theater Club and The Ballad of Soapy Smith at the Public, and Walsh in Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square Theatre, Gardenia and The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close at Manhattan Theater Club, Breaking the Prairie Wolf Code at American Place Theatre and Living Quarters at the Vineyard Theatre.

And then”¦

The Birth of a New Creation

Meshach Taylor and Elyse Dinh

A move to LA in 1988 eventually brought a plethora of work for Eckhouse, who loves being a character actor. It has been his bread and butter, allowing him to work on over 50 TV series. His best-known role was on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 — in which he portrayed the father of twins who were played by Jason Priestley and Shannon Doherty.

For Walsh, the move brought a major change in her life. Pregnant with her second son, she admits, “I gave up acting — completely.” In its place came painting, in a serious way. She describes her work as “figurative abstract — the combination of the two, based on a little cut-out girl going through a journey.”  It garnered attention and was shown around town.

While painting, Walsh began to write but not for theater. The writing was for herself. Then, as the children grew older, she decided to step out beyond her self-imposed creative circle. She approached acting coach Gordon Hunt with a proposition.

“I said to this fabulous man, ‘Here’s the thing. I’m not interested in acting; I’m interested in writing. Can I take your class and do a lot of writing?’ He said ‘Absolutely.’ All of a sudden, literally within two weeks, I stopped painting and wrote while in the class. And it just took off for me. I wrote while acting.”

The first incarnation of Year of the Rabbit began in Hunt’s class. Its development continued over the years in readings and workshops. As a member of EST in New York and LA, she nurtured her work before submitting it to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Walsh’s first play was named the inaugural winner of the biennial Kentucky Writers Conference Prize for Women Playwrights by a panel of judges that included Obie award-winning playwright and Kentucky native Naomi Wallace of One Flea Spare fame.

Meshach Taylor

As stated by Wallace at the KWWC, “Year of the Rabbit makes evident, with a fresh theatricality and original imagination, the historical and emotional connectedness we often wish to deny between what one might call Big History and the most intimate experiences of our lives. The play brings together the disparate worlds of love and war, and the collision is both disturbing and at times, deeply moving.”

High praise, indeed, coming from a 2012 recipient of the Horton Foote Prize.

“Fresh theatricality and original imagination.” How so? Walsh ponders the question, then makes a comparison.

“When I think about painting, when I think about writing, I love to go into that world of just blowing out the walls. Let’s mash time up, let’s throw some stars across the sky, let’s mow up the rug. I like to see things get mixed up, to juxtapose images. But then you need to have it make sense at the same time. That’s where the fun comes in.”

Was it easier to write the script with Walsh’s military background — writing what she knew?

“I believe in writing what you want to know. Of course, you can’t help writing what you know — that’s how it is. But part of the experience of writing is to experience what you want to know, what you need to know, what you’re trying to find out. It’s a journey for the writer, too.”

What about the collision of contrasting worlds — the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan — in her play? What inspired her?

Keliher Walsh and Meshach Taylor

“When America went to war in Iraq, everyone kept saying, ‘It’s just like Vietnam.’ I had two boys coming of age with Afghanistan starting. If there had been a draft, I would’ve been the first person chained to the White House gates. People said these wars were not the same. All wars are the same”¦ in this big way, this cosmic way. Obviously, all wars aren’t the same in the details. But when it comes to a mother sending her 18-year-old to war”¦ it’s the same. I wanted to explore a mother’s view of how it affected her, how it affects a mother who is in war, how women are collateral damage even though they’re not in the middle of the war.”

Eckhouse adds to the discussion palette. “What fascinates me about the play is”¦ as a painter would put a splash of reddish-brown here, green over there, a little blue over here”¦ how is it coming together? Lo and behold it does. This play does that with time. By putting a scene in one part of time and another scene with another color and sense to it, it sort of spirals. By the time the play is over you start to make the connections, the pastiche of all the different colors. It weaves this very dense moving fabric of humanity’s impact on war — cross-generation, cross-ethnicity.”

The creative tag-team shifts back to Walsh, who emphasizes, “War is a massive event. It impacts on human lives and their relationships, particularly motherhood, and on parents and children, and love. It’s multitudinous in terms in what it’s looking at — the weight of it, the way it weighs down on individual lives. Can there be love in the face of war? Is there even a possibility of love in the milieu of war? In the middle of Vietnam, in the middle of Afghanistan — with wondrous and drastic consequences?

The interview momentarily stops with reflective silence.

Wearing a Multitude of Hats

Will McFadden and Ashanti Brown

All of that time nurturing the script paid off, and the bonus was when Gates McFadden — EST-LA artistic director — gave the green light for Year of the Rabbit to be given its first production. Since the KWWC, Walsh has trimmed and reworked the material. And included her husband into the mix, as the director.

Eckhouse, while best known as an actor, is no novice at directing. While co-artistic director of EST-LA in 1997-1999, he produced and directed over 20 new plays. Among the local venues where he has shared this particular creative skill are the Falcon, the Matrix, Inside the Ford, the Groundlings, the Lost Studio, the Electric Lodge and the Blank.

But to direct your own wife’s play? “‘Dear Knows’ was a forge for us,” Eckhouse recalls, “forming and being in these pieces together. That was a real test for us and forged our working relationship. We’ve been down this road before — not that it’s easy, it can be tempestuous, but that leads to a lot of creativity.”

Walsh’s head nods in agreement. She adds, “I always knew James was the person to direct this. Face it, we want to work with people who know us well. You want your team together. James is my team.”

Yet Walsh has also taken on the role of actress in the production along with Ashanti Brown, Elyse Dinh, Peter MacKenzie, Will McFadden and Meshach Taylor. First production, writing and acting –  why would she do this to herself?

“Some people ride roller coasters and I do theater.” She bursts out with laughter.

Elyse Dinh

“My hat’s off to this woman who’s acting in this play in a very intense role,” states Eckhouse, “but luckily she has developed it over the years.”

Walsh adds, “It’s a lot — acting is a lot of effort but”¦when I do, it always revives me.”

Eckhouse continues, “As a playwright, Keliher has been able to pull back from acting, be at my side for me to say ‘Textually, we need to do this, this and that’ and then do it. Yes, it’s a huge challenge for both of us. But we went into it eyes wide open.”

“Isn’t that what theater is,” interjects Walsh, “wearing a multitude of hats? It’s fun. We love doing what we do.”

Year of the Rabbit, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA , Atwater Village Theatre complex, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Opens Saturday, 8 pm. Then plays Sun Sept 16 at 2 pm and 7 pm, Fri Sept 21 at 8 pm, Sat Sept 22 at 5 pm and 8 pm, Sun Sept 23 at 2 pm, Mon October 1 at 8 pm, after which it enters repertory with The Belle of Belfast. Check October dates on the website. Closes October 28. Tickets: $25. www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. 323-644-1929.

***All Year of the Rabbit production photos by Betsy Newman

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