Young readers, take heart. By the time you become middle-aged, relationships are fulfilling, lively and easy. Just ask any of the three middle-aged women in Kathryn Graf’s The Snake Can, opening this week at the Odyssey Theatre.
Older readers, take heart as well. You know how much the previous statement is intentionally misleading. Like snake oil.
“I think the rules of middle age have changed,” says director Steven Robman, who makes his 99-seat directorial debut. “When I was growing up, my parents were friends with exactly one couple who got divorced. And now, as we all know, those numbers are sky high and kids go to school from families that are busted apart.”
Compared to 50 years ago, our lives — and our relationships — are more volatile, says Robman, “so getting your feet under you in middle age, especially when you’re by yourself, is what the playwright decided to investigate.”
Graf’s last foray into Los Angeles, in 2011, was the critically acclaimed Hermetically Sealed, which grew out of Katselas Theatre Company’s Inkubator series for a run at the Skylight Theatre.
Her first play was the one-woman, autobiographical Surviving David, a piece she wrote after the 2001 death of her husband. Hermetically Sealed (think egg) focused on a middle-aged woman who lives alone with her teenaged son. Now she moves her eye toward three women (Jane Kaczmarek, Sharon Sharth and Diane Cary) whose love interests are played by Gregory Harrison, James Lancaster and Joel Polis (who directed Hermetically Sealed).
Robman, who has directed a slew of television shows and helmed works at the Long Wharf Theatre, Guthrie Theater, Yale Rep and Playwrights Horizons, among others, says, “The women are 40, 45, 50 who suddenly have become single. One lost her husband prematurely. Another is recently separated and one has been married twice and never been able to keep something going. They are examining what it’s like to be alone at that age. It is a difficult path to navigate.”
It is trial and error at that age, despite years of practice, and rarely do people claim mastery. Middle age is a time when we often find turbulence in life and uncertainty in love. But at least, for theater’s sake, we have tricks to tell these stories.
“One trick that we’re incorporating,” Robman says, “is projections. We’ve tried to be not so on-the-nose as projections often are [as when] showing a restaurant image because the scene takes place in a restaurant. Instead we’ve tried to be more metaphorical, to give the feel of what’s about to come.”
In some cases, he says, information arrives via projections. “In one moment there’s a series of text messages that are frantically sent. So we are showing the messages coming out one letter at a time. In another case, a character has a romantic fantasy about someone she’s met on an online dating service, and the fantasy builds in her mind so that he suddenly becomes Antonio Banderas or some other highly fantasizable romantic figure, and we use the projections to help that go along. It augments the tone of the story more than anything else.” Robman hired Hana Kim to design the projections after seeing her work on The Belle of Belfast last year at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.
By 1973, when Robman graduated from the Yale School of Drama, plays had become much more episodic, theorizes the director. “The playwrights of that generation are the ones who grew up with television for the first time. Writing in short scenes in many locations became a knee-jerk response, and those are a little harder to produce on stage. I wonder if projections are a response to that.”
While every moment in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County takes place in or just outside the family home, for example, his Man from Nebraska is a different story. Robman saw its West Coast premiere in 2006 at South Coast Repertory. “That’s a play with eight or 10 locations in it. And somehow you have to respond to that when you’re designing the play. Most of the work of the iconic legends of American theater like Miller, Williams, O’Neill is not like that. Occasionally there’s a scene within a scene. We have to give Miller credit for doing that in Salesman. They are often metaphoric devices to get you from, say, the hotel room to Willy Loman’s house, but you could almost mark that  as the beginning of plays being written not at one place and one time.”
He also argues against Mike Nichols’ homage to designer Jo Mielziner, whose original set was used last year in the Broadway return of Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Mike made a big point of it. [Robman leans into the microphone.] Forgive me, Mike, because you’re an icon in the American theater, but I was horrified to hear that. We were always taught that [after] they’ve done something, it’s time to find another approach to give the audience a fresh perspective.”
Speaking in his red dining room in his South Pasadena home, Robman leans back his bearded face. “Who knows? Maybe he didn’t want to solve the scenic problems any other way. Look at the difference between that and the production Bob Falls did with Brian Dennehy [it played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2000], which couldn’t have been more different than the original but had a wonderful scenic energy. That’s proof positive you don’t have to go back to the original design.”
Speaking of Dennehy, the 74-year-old actor has been a longtime friend of Robman, and he is about to play the central role in Robman’s biggest LA project of the year. They met in the late 1970s when Robman directed Says I, Says He by Ron Hutchinson, a Belfast Irishman, at the Phoenix Theatre in New York (Robman also served there as artistic director for three seasons in the early 1980s).
He needed a big guy for a role, so he called upon his Yale School of Drama roommate, actor and two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, Richard Masur. “Richard was shy of thinking about himself for it, but said that he had been in a movie about football players called Semi-Tough with this guy named Brian Dennehy. We called him up, he auditioned and did a wonderful job. The associate artistic director at the Taper, Ken Brecher, saw the show in New York and recommended it to [then artistic director] Gordon Davidson and we ended up doing it at the Taper [in 1980].”
Robman later directed Dennehy in another Hutchinson work, Rat in the Skull. “I had become friends with Bob Falls who runs the Goodman Theatre [in Chicago] but at the time was running Wisdom Bridge Theatre. I was quite pleased and it’s become, if I may be allowed to toot my horn just a tiny bit, one of the shows people talk about in Chicago theater, I think because it’s the show that brought Brian Dennehy to Chicago.”
The Irish trail continues as Robman also cast James Lancaster in Rat in the Skull. “He was in New York at the time wondering if he could make a career out of being an American actor, even though he was an Irishman. He was the young terrorist who was interrogated by Brian who played the policeman, so Brian played the Ulster Protestant cop even though he is an Irish Catholic and James played the Irish Catholic terrorist even though he is an Irish Protestant, and then James met Brian’s daughter and married her, so James is now Brian’s son-in-law. Just to bring this full circle, James is in The Snake Can.”
Robman will direct Dennehy in The Steward of Christendom, a play by Ireland’s Sebastian Barry, at the Mark Taper Forum, opening Dec 8. Dennehy will play Thomas, a Roman Catholic former police officer in Dublin still loyal to the crown. Says Robman, “The play is a very, very big load for the leading man. Almost Lear-like in its intensity and demands. It is written for a man in his early 70s. Donal McCann played it in his mid-50s [during the mid-’90s]. This may be the first time it’s been done by an actor who’s the actual age of the character, and we’ll see if Brian’s stamina holds out.” The two plan a summer pilgrimage to Ireland to meet with the playwright.
This will be Robman’s fifth foray at the Mark Taper Forum. Previous shows include Says I, Says He; Hoagy, Bix & Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus in 1981; Alvin Boretz’s Made in America in 1984 and Babbitt: a Marriage in 1987. For Robman, who grew up in Los Angeles, it’s the return of the prodigal son. “When I did my first play there, my mother bought 80 tickets for opening night because for her it was like another bar mitzvah.”
An Oddity at the Odyssey
Robman is married to actress Kathy Baker, whose four seasons in the 1990s on television’s Picket Fences earned her three Emmys out of four nominations. The two met on an episode of the short-lived TNT series, Bull, in which Baker had been cast and which Robman had been brought in to direct. “She was wonderful and had recently become available, so I stepped in to fill the void, as it were.” They married in 2003.
In 1983 Baker won acclaim in the lead role of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love which moved to New York. She and co-star Ed Harris won Obie Awards.
While Gordon Davidson has many framed posters of shows he has produced or directed in his home, Robman says he and Baker have one each. His is for the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s 1977 Uncommon Women and Others. Baker’s is of the original production of Fool for Love.
The oddity is that The Snake Can‘s Sharon Sharth, who originated 14 roles in New York City with Circle Rep, MTC and others, got her Equity card, Robman remembers, understudying Amanda McBroom in his Taper production of Hoagy, Bix & Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus. “And in an unusual coincidence, she also understudied my wife in the original Fool for Love in NYC.”
They also live just a couple of miles apart.
The Snake Can, an Indie Chi Production. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Feb. 24. Tickets $30. www.odysseytheatre.com. 310-477-2055 ext. 2.
***All The Snake Can production photos by Ed Krieger.