This is likely the final season for Andak Stage Company, founded in North Hollywood in 2004 by Dakin Matthews and Anne McNaughton. Matthews says his steady work in New York has prompted the couple to become physically and financially bi-coastal, so he hopes to find someone to take over the 35-seat space.
“I’m still here for the next six or seven months,” Matthews says. “I’ve got a couple of plays that I’ve agreed to do [as an actor, including The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in March and April], but I would like to find someone to sell my equipment to. I’m sure the landlord would like that as well.”
Andak (a combined form of Anne and Dakin) has not opened a play since two years ago, when the company produced Matthews’ translation of Lope de Vega’s The Capulets and the Montagues. But the hiatus is about to end. Kevin O’Morrison‘s Ladyhouse Blues opens Saturday, with Matthews producing and McNaughton directing.
Tall, lanky, red-headed Kitty Swink remembers running into her old friends Matthews and McNaughton outside Costco some months back. “Anne asked if I was busy. I told her I wasn’t really and she told me she had a play that she’d directed once [in the ’80s] at ACT [American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, in a student workshop] and really wanted to do. She asked if I would read it.”
Swink is a longtime member of Antaeus, where Matthews and McNaughton were founding members. She located what was likely the couple’s old copy of Ladyhouse Blues inside the Antaeus library. “I read it and called them. Dakin emailed me the next day and said he was putting together a cast and thought we should do this play. Simple as that.”
What convinced her to do it was fear. “It scared me.” Her character, Liz, “is so not anything like me in so many ways. Of course, going through rehearsals, I have found many things about her that are like me.”
She compares Liz to King Lear. “For a woman, it’s the same type of role. There are enormous issues about loss and philosophy and trying to grasp onto things that are slipping through your fingers and, like with King Lear, there is lots of funny stuff in it.”
O’Morrison set the play near the time he was born, 1919, and in his home town of St. Louis, Missouri. Ladyhouses were the tenements, occupied by children and women, while their men were at war. The play was developed in 1976 at the O’Neill Center, opened in New York later that year and again in 1979. American Playwrights Theater introduced it to LA in 1977 at Theatre 40, and South Coast Repertory produced it in 1980.
Swink explains, “Liz lives with her four daughters, three of them permanently. One is home from New York. World War I is ending and the boys, including my one son, are coming home. It’s one of those plays where nothing happens and everything happens.”
Like a Seinfeld episode? “More like Chekhov. We’re from the Ozarks. My husband died when I was 26. I had six kids that I was trying to raise by myself. One of my daughters passed away when she was a small child. I have a 24-year-old daughter who’s got consumption,” and for effect, she slips into the Ozark accent she has taken on, as if the word has more than one U, each its own syllable, leaving a fine line between a true accent and something the audience can understand.
“Because of her tuberculosis, she can’t live with her small child. My two youngest daughters are in high school and work as waitresses, and I need everybody to keep the house going. My daughter Dot is the second oldest. She’s a New York model who married a wealthy man she met at the White House, where she got to go because she had sold so many war bonds.”
The back story is all in the text, she says. “It’s vast. They really talk. And talk. And talk. Which makes it sound like the play’s talky, which it’s not. They talk about their lives a great deal because their lives are so important to them.”
The family in the play moved to St. Louis from Arkansas, where the dialect is strikingly different. Swink relied on a dialect CD, but also on her friend, actress Tess Harper, who was nominated for an Oscar for Crimes of the Heart. “Tess is from Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. Many of these people are familiar to me through Tess’ family. These people are Irish, their last name is Madden, and they’re tough people who got pushed off their land by the railroads and the banks. Tess’ father and uncle went to Detroit at the beginning of World War II because there were no jobs at home, and then moved back to the land.”
After nearly a century since the time when the play takes place, Swink believes that Ladyhouse Blue resonates because people still have strong inconsistencies and can be at counterpoints with their own cultures. “Among my friends, those who tend to do well, are those who tend to vote against their own best pocketbook interests because they think it’s what’s best for the country. And many people who live in the southern part of the United States tend to vote against their own best interests because of cultural issues, so a lot of that is talked about in an oblique way. Feminism is talked about in a very oblique way in this play, but it’s a present part of these women’s lives, because the men make the decisions.”
Immigration, too. “The immigrant culture revitalizes our own culture and some of the people in this play are scared about immigrants. They talk in code. They’re very funny people, even with the big issues at hand.”
20th Century Works
This has been Swink’s period for immersing herself in new eras of the past century. She explored the 1940s in Antaeus’ Autumn Garden in 2010. Last fall she was at Merrimack Rep in Lowell, Massachusetts — Jack Kerouac’s home town — doing five performances of a staged reading of Beat Generation, “a Kerouac play that had been lost for decades. More of a beat poem, really, than a play,” she clarifies. “Now I’m in 1919. These are two eras in the century that I wasn’t that familiar with.”
Her first recollection of being touched by a play was at the age of nine. “I remember being in the audience as a little kid and seeing [the 1961 musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse] Stop the World — I Want to Get Off at Portland City Theatre [Oregon], which was a very sophisticated play. I remember feeling all of us in the audience sort of rise up from our seats and have a communal experience. I remember how thrilled I was and thinking that I want to do that.”
The first time she felt she successfully conjured the same response was during a play in high school with witchcraft and revival meetings. “I was always with the artsy-fartsy crowd, but there was a girl who’d never spoken to me before who came up and expressed to me her reaction to what I had done or said. It moved her.”
She reminisces over a “little teen movie [Boxboarders] where Stephen Tobolowsky and I played husband and wife. He’s one of those actors in whose presence you’re immediately transported because he’s so present that I didn’t have to act. I did a sweet little movie with Garrett Brown a couple of years ago about people in their 50s or 60s dating and falling in love. We would be having dinner at a restaurant for a scene and really eating and not getting up in between takes unless they really needed us. We would just sit and talk as if we were on our first date. We were transported. ”
By 1977 Swink had moved to New York City. When she wasn’t acting, she tended bar rather than go on unemployment insurance. “It paid better,” she says. She became friends with an older Broadway actor, George Hearn. “We flirted a bit, but never dated.”
But it was through Hearn, with two Tony Awards (La Cage aux Folles and Sunset Boulevard) and an Emmy (Sweeney Todd) among his collection, that she met her husband, actor Armin Shimerman, in 1979.
“My best friend, Julie, asked me one night what I was doing after a show and I said I was going down to Barrymore’s. Every Monday night I met George there for a drink. My old boyfriend, Mark, was visiting from Portland. I told Mark to go into Barrymore’s and there would be a guy sitting at the bar, about 20 years older than us, named George and he’s got red hair.
“When Julie and I walked into the bar, Armin and Mark and George and [actor] Harris Yulin were talking about long-distance relationships. Armin and George were dressing roommates in I Remember Mama, and Armin was talking about his old girlfriend who was living in California, and Mark was talking about me. George was talking about Dixie Carter [to whom he was married from 1977 to 1979].
“Julie met Mark that night, and I met Armin and we fell in love. When we got married in Portland, I asked Mark to pick up Julie at the airport and bring her to a party at my aunt and uncle’s house. I didn’t know he didn’t have a car. I didn’t know he’d spent about $65 to buy a car that could only turn right, so it took them a long time to get to my aunt and uncle’s house, and on the way they pulled over, frustrated, and decided to make out. Their oldest daughter is my goddaughter. It was a good night for romance.”
It was also Hearn who convinced Swink to propose to Shimerman a year after they met. “Armin was at the Guthrie [Theater in Minneapolis]and I called and proposed to him. And then he said, yeah, I’ll think about that, and then he proposed to me in Indianapolis.”
Part of Swink’s fondness for Antaeus, and theater in general, is the family it provides. “Armin was lucky enough to have had seven years on a TV series [as Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]. For me it’s nice to get a TV or film role with people I know, so I don’t feel like the new kid on the block.” She appeared twice on Deep Space Nine, but did not share a scene with her husband.
Swink jokes about guest-starring on many TV shows that quickly get canceled (Grown, The Riches, Outlaw, for example) and almost always playing a lawyer or judge, yet working with wonderful actors. “I worked once with the incomparable Eddie Izzard while he was passing a kidney stone, in hideous pain, yet remained unflaggingly generous and kind and so brilliant.”
Paths often cross. A 2009 episode of Leverage put Swink together with Star Trek alums Shimerman and Brent Spiner (Data) with Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) directing. And younger actors, particularly at Antaeus, inspire her. “I Am I, written, directed and starring Jocelyn Towne or The Selling, written, directed and produced by Gabe Diani and Etta Devine are two. I don’t have much to do in either one, but they were wonderful experiences. I am knocked out by what they do.”
She also appreciates the language of theater. “In film and TV everybody’s needs are more important than mine because they’ve got to make sure the sound works and the lights work and it’s fun and wonderful, but the play’s the thing for me. I love words. I love to read. I love the sound of the spoken word. The kind of theater that draws me is probably why I’ve been with Antaeus for so long and with Dakin and Anne and this play: — I love the texture of language. Classical language, new language, but language. And that’s what plays give you. I love that. I love that.”
Ladyhouse Blues, Andak Stage Company (New Place), 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood 90601. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm and Sat-Sun 2 pm. Through March 24. www.andak.org. 818-506-8462.
***All Ladyhouse Blues production photos by Dakin Matthews