Playwright Marthe Rachel Gold and director John Frank Levey have come together to stage the premiere of Gold’s Lake Anne, opening tonight at the Road on Magnolia in NoHo, but their history goes way back to their undergraduate years at the University of Rochester.
“John was a director at the university summer theater,” Gold recalls, “and I was an actor. We got along very well.”
“Actually, we were boyfriend and girlfriend for about a year and a half,” Levey reveals, a touch of pride in his voice. “That would have been in 1969 and we’ve been friends ever since, even though our lives have followed very different paths.”
Different paths is an understatement. Dr. Marthe Rachel Gold is a New York-based physician who is currently a professor of community health and social medicine at the City College of New York. John Frank Levey is a four-time Emmy-winning casting director (ER, The West Wing), the recipient of the prestigious Hoyt Bowers award for lifetime achievement from the Casting Society of America. Of course, he lives on the West Coast.
Levey explains, “Naturally, we have both been involved in developing our individual lives and careers. But over the years, Rachel and I have become part of a network of close friends. Her husband and I our very close friends. As part of this friendship, Rachel has passed her written work on to me and I’ve read it, always with the thought of helping her develop it. We both have a common a love of live theater and she began looking to the possibility of having her plays performed.”
Gold adds, “Even though I have devoted my life to being a physician and an academic person, I’ve always been a bit of a writer on the side, mostly fiction. Well, a number of years ago, I had the urge to be involved in theater again. I missed it. I figured too many years had gone by for me to think of acting again, so I started to write for the stage. And since John and I had remained friends, I asked if I could send him things just so I could get a reaction to my work. Thankfully, he became a fan. He liked my stuff. He then arranged a reading of the first play I wrote, Marsh Light, in Los Angeles. I came out, and it was marvelous to hear my words being performed by professional actors.” Levey also directed a workshop of Marsh Light in Studio City.
As the creative correspondence continued, Levey decided to pass some of her plays, including Lake Anne, to Road Theatre Company in NoHo. “(Co-artistic director) Sam Anderson is a friend of mine and he has asked me if I wanted to direct something at the Road, and I thought it would be wonderful to direct something of Marthe’s. Well, Sam and the Road’s co-artistic director Taylor Gilbert selected Lake Anne. It didn’t happen immediately. Sam and Marthe, primarily, worked on the script dramaturgically for quite a while. Finally, it was green-lit and here we are.”
Those who knew Levey in the late 1970s, when he was an emphatically dedicated young man of the theater, might be surprised to learn that Lake Anne marks his return to stage directing after many years. He received his big break locally when he staged The Night of the 20th for the New Artef Players. The play was seen by Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson, who then offered Levey an NEA directing fellowship.
“One of my first tasks was assisting Jose Quintero in his staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Taper. I then went on to direct in the Taper’s literary cabaret and in the new play festival. When this experience ended, I was faced with the need to continue working since I did have a family to support. That is when I ventured into casting.” Eventually, Levey was brought onto the ABC series China Beach and has worked non-stop in the industry ever since. His current project is Shameless on Showtime.
“Of course, I am delighted that he has taken the time to direct Lake Anne,” says Gold. “We have been developing it for quite a while.” Gold pauses when asked what inspired her to write the play, which features the five-member ensemble of Laurie O’Brien, Laura Gardner, Michael Traynor, Alex Smith and Stephanie Michels. Then she replies, “there is no one inspiration for it.”
She explains, “There is a piece of it that comes from a sort of ethical medical conundrum I had. In the play, there is a mother who is the caretaker for her cognitively-disabled grown son. And I had an experience when I was a young doctor, trying to help a family make a decision about a surgical procedure needed by a cognitively disabled man. His mother didn’t want him to have the procedure because she was very concerned what would happen to him if he outlived her.”
Gold continues, “There is also a part of the play that is a lot about home and the importance of home and what it means for people to lose their home. There is also a piece of the play about taking responsibility for people you love at the expense of things that you love to do. I guess there are a lot of fears in it. The natural world plays a part in it as well. So, there is no one inspiration for the play.”
Levey sums up the work as he sees it. “This story centers around a disabled son and the impact that he has on lots of peoples’ relationships…This is a dark and sad story about the ways in which we love each other that don’t work to solve our problems, and the ways in which we love each other that exacerbate the issues that are at hand.”
He adds, “This play has gone through some evolution. Marthe came out for the first two weeks of rehearsal and we just did table work. Then she and I would go back to my place and talk about what we learned that day. Then she would turn some stuff around. Some of it was tiny, like stage logistics. We also did some trimming and cutting, also some substantive re-writing. After she left and the actors got up on their feet, we occasionally had to handle practical issues that came up in the staging.”
The play presents challenges just in the nature of the characters. The grown son was originally supposed to have Down syndrome and be portrayed by an actor with Down syndrome. Levey recalls, “In our first reading of the play we used an actor who had Down syndrome, but in the discussions with the audience afterwards, no one could tell he was disabled because he was so high-functioning. Now, the character’s disability is unspecified. We are using an able-bodied actor (Alex Smith) who is creating the physicality, the speech patterns and the emotional state of mind for the character as written.”
There is also the challenge of Anne (Laurie O’Brien), a former prima ballerina. At the end of the first act, Anne and her adult nephew, a professional dancer (Michael Traynor), have this intimate scene where they dance a pas de deux. O’Brien is not a trained ballet dancer but had to learn to pull it off. She worked with choreographer Cate Caplin. Levey is happy with the results.
“Marthe doesn’t have a dance background either,” he explains. “I think the character came out of her desire to create a lead character that was involved in an esoteric art form that would give her the right character information — a kind of narcissism, a need for attention that was important to Anne to have, in terms of what happens and what her decisions are in reference to her ability to cope with her life.”
Gold is in town for opening weekend, expressing high anticipation. “This has been a great collaboration for me,” she says. “Of course I am delighted. As far as my medical life goes, I was in practice for many years, and 15 years ago I moved to the academic side. I have been a department chair and done work in public health policy. I am also at the point where I don’t really have to work for a living wage. The thought of being a full-time playwright has certainly come to mind.”
Now that Levey has returned to theater, it is natural to ask him if he plans to keep it up. He droops his head and replies, “When I became successful as a casting director, I could find no practical reason to leave that to return to the insecure world of live theater. But as time progressed, I discovered that young man who was a theater person still exists, but in a slightly diminished version. I am 66 now and am realizing this is a lot of work, especially coupled with my ongoing casting life. I am tired.”
Then he perks up. “After this, I am going to rest up a bit, but I do think I want to stay involved in live theater. It will always have to be within the reality that I have another, demanding job that I do. It would have to be something I really want to do. I can’t just be a gun for hire to do something I don’t have a vested interest in doing, either personally or because of the nature of the material. But, who knows?”
Lake Anne, Road on Magnolia at NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, 91601. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Nov 9. Tickets: $34. www.RoadTheatre.org. 866-506-1248.