Director Wilson Milam is no stranger to Irish playwrights and their works. Milam was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of the 2006 Broadway production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which followed his staging of the play’s premiere for the Royal Shakespeare Company — first in Stratford and then in London.
His many credits include productions of Irish plays on both sides of the Atlantic, including what he calls “my first Irish plays” — The Wexford Trilogy at the Tricycle Theatre in London, and the acclaimed production of Inishmore at the Mark Taper Forum in 2010.
Now he’s staging Irish writer Robert Massey’s Rank, opening Saturday at the Odyssey Theatre. He came to the job highly recommended by Irish actor Kevin Kearns, a native of County Donegal, Ireland, who appeared in Milam’s production of Inishmore at the Taper. When Odyssey literary manager Sally Essex-Lopresti found the script, “Kevin suggested me,” Milam says.
The language and dialects of the play are a little different for all of them, and one of the challenges of the piece, he says.
“When you have gnarly language like this, you give the actors a chance to learn the nuances and the rhetoric, and eventually people start to get up and move around the set,” Milam says.
Coming to the table
He started the three-week rehearsal process with important table work. “I probably sit around a table more than I used to,” he says.
Presenting the actors with a glossary of words and outlines of the play’s complex themes, he wanted the actors to know the world of the play, “and the language, and how it’s used.”
“By the time you get to the rehearsal table, you have read the play about a trillion times,” says Milam.
His passion for the text and the language supersedes his desire for the actors to perfect the territorial Irish dialect. Conceding that American audiences won’t know the subtle differences, he says the important thing is to have “a sense of it.”
“You want the taste of it, and it does help you study the characters and learn the lines”¦..You can’t paraphrase this text,” he says.
Reading a piece of the text out loud from his well-used script, Milam describes the dialogue as the essential basis of the character development for the actors. Himself an actor, he says his direction style focuses on the actors and their knowledge of the text. Text knowledge provides the actor the ability to find truth in the characters, he says.
“The freedom comes from knowing this is your way through the scene — this is your line,” says Milam.
Leafing through the pages filled with his countless scribbled notes about the language, the setting, the characters, and the themes, Milam compares Massey’s script to an Elizabethan play. Praising Irish playwrights for their native love of language, he references Massey’s work in Shakespearean terms, with regard to classic language construction and rules of rhetoric.
“I have been blessed to work on a number of plays with great language,” Milam says.
At its core
At the core of the play is a story about male friendship, he says. Jackie Farrell (Ron Bottitta) is heading down a “lurid path” that his friend, George Kelly (Schaal) decides to turn away from. George takes on an honest life as a taxi driver, and Jackie winds up serving six years in prison.
“It’s a classic story of two friends who go separate ways,” says Milam.
While Jackie is in prison, George becomes a surrogate provider for Jackie’s family. When Jackie is released, his resentment for George causes a severe rift between the two friends, and they part ways. Jackie goes on to become a casino kingpin deeply seeded in organized crime, while George continues to drive his taxi under the changing economic conditions of Ireland’s joining the European Union.
With a “rage” he has developed toward modern Ireland that Milam equates to the writings of Irish author Gene Kerrigan, George laments the Westernization of Irish society, and rails against a loss of formality and common manners among the Irish people. As his earnings decrease through the deregulation of taxi transit, he develops a gambling habit and soon finds himself deep in debt to Jackie’s casino interests.
“It’s Ireland. They tell the story in bits and pieces. It’s the beauty of the story — the way it comes out,” Milam says.
Despite the pain and anger the two men hold over their perceived slights and betrayals, Jackie forgives George’s debt out of sentimentality for their once strong bond of friendship. But when George’s son-in-law, Carl (Kearns), falls into the same gambling trap, Jackie is not so forgiving.
When Jackie demands that Carl come up with the money, George finds out. He goes to Jackie to plead for Carl, and Jackie makes them a deal — pull a heist for him, and the debt will be forgiven. The result is a play that touches on a long list of themes from addiction to rivalry to complex relationships and behaviors between men, says Milam.
“It’s a story about the relationships men have with each other”¦.the dynamics of male behavior,” he says. “The hardest stuff is the emotional honesty, the openness to share, and the giving.”
Making it quick
The shortened rehearsal schedule has challenged director and actors to find the truth in the relationships in the play, says Milam, who came straight from a production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo at Seattle Repertory Theatre to begin work on Rank.
“It’s not ideal,” Milam says in describing the rehearsal schedule of approximately 36 hours per week.
“I’d probably rehearse 12 hours a day if I could,” he says. Finding ways to make up time is essential to mastering the density of the themes of the play.
“You get cagey about it. You know where to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he says.
The simplicity of the scenic design by Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz has lent more time to the rehearsal process, while also placing further emphasis on the actors.
“I have challenged them to keep digging to be absolutely true — to defend your character, to feel and express and to want,” Milam says.
In the final week of the process, he encourages them to find “a path through…It doesn’t mean stop exploring, but means you have a path that works you can fall back to,” he says.
For him, the reward comes through “seeing the actors so totally in the moment, riffin’ together,” he says, using a musical term to describe their interactions on stage. “BB King said “˜it’s more about the notes you don’t play’.”
Underneath the relationships in the play is a “level of confused and depressed and conflicted” that is always present. “It’s true and real, and they have the honesty to bring it to the table,” he says. “These actors are at the top of their game.”
Next up for Milam is a production of Warrior Class for the Alley Theatre in Texas, where Milam directed God of Carnage in 2011. That schedule dictates that Milam must leave Los Angeles shortly after Rank has opened to audiences here.
Generally he likes to watch a production in its early performance stages to see it “grow and deepen,” he says.
“I’d prefer to have a little time with it, but in this case, I can’t,” Milam says. “Sometimes some gorgeous discoveries are made, and you want to go in and sort of organize them.”
As the production prepares to open, he longs to see the relationship between George and Jackie depicted with all of its complexity and layers of interaction for the audience.
“You know these people would love to be the friends they know they can be,” says Milam.
Ultimately he seeks to present the play in a way that audiences will connect to on a personal level of understanding the human bonds that bind these characters together.
“I started as an actor. To me it all comes down to the actor and the text, at the end of the day,” Milam says.
Rank, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Opens Saturday. Fri and Sat 8 pm, Sun, 2 pm, select Wed and Thur 8 p.m. through May 12. Tickets: $25-$30. www.odysseytheatre.com. 310-477-2055.
**All Rank production photos by Enci.