Fifth in a cycle of plays about playwright Sebastian Barry’s Irish family, The Steward of Christendom stars Brian Dennehy in a tour-de-force role as Thomas Dunne, last chief superintendent of Dublin’s Metropolitan Police. At 75 years old, the two-time Tony winner is not resting on his laurels. Dennehy tackles a role where he is on stage for two and a half hours, stripped naked in the first five minutes, struggles with dementia and delivers 10 long monologues.
Before the play began, I chatted with actor Dorian Harewood, whose jaw dropped when told about the monologues. “Oh…really?”, he said, then added with a big smile, “I hope they’re not too long.” Harewood came to see his young nephew Grant Palmer who alternates with Daniel Weinstein in the role of Willie Dunn. “I don’t know anything about the play, but I’m a big fan of Brian. I started in the theater and love it. Live theater is what keeps actors going — having to dive out there with no safety net.”
Harewood acknowledged the difficulty of doing monologues. “I had several monologues in a Broadway play years ago called The Mighty Gents with a couple of unknown actors [big smile] named Morgan Freeman and Howard Rollins, Jr. The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make it work, because the audience doesn’t know what you’re supposed to say.”
Beautiful actress Taraji P. Henson who, in November, was shockingly killed off in her hit series Person of Interest, is happy to segue into a new play, Above The Fold at the Pasadena Playhouse (opening Jan 28). “I grew up in theater, so I love going back to the drawing board and sharpening my instrument. Television and film can make you a little lazy because you have the luxury of saying ‘oh I made a mistake, take two.’ I came tonight because I’m about to begin rehearsing with the director (Steven Robman) and wanted to see his work.”
Told about Dennehy’s monologues, Henson said, “I’ve never had to do anything that difficult — God bless him. But, when you love the craft you thirst for material like that and should be able to hold your own for two hours. For me, theater is a chance for actors to be rock stars because there’s instant gratification every night and you can feel the energy in the room,” she smiles, “or not. You have your off days, but you don’t have to wait for editing and a premiere. The actor gets to live the life of the character — beginning, middle and end — every night. I’m an artist. I’ll probably drop dead on the stage — but no time soon.”
Bill Irwin, whose career spans from Tony-winning actor (Virginia Woolf) to American circus clown of renown, also loves the theater. “This play means a lot to my family, because we’re from Northern Ireland. I’m familiar with the story and I’m here to see Mr. Dennehy do the role I associate with a famous Irish actor named Donal McCann.”
I read an interview with Dennehy, who said he was asked to do the role many years ago but refused because he saw McCann’s performance and wouldn’t touch it. “Really?” Irwin was delighted to hear of Dennehy’s respect for McCann. “My heart is with Brian Dennehy. I’m so thrilled to see him take this on. Here’s my two-bit theory about memorizing roles like this. As you get older, memory gets harder partly because it’s just more difficult to put those words in there, but also because you know the difference between really knowing your words and only kind of knowing them. When you’re young you know the next word is coming, but when you get older you want to have it so steeped inside your head that there is no effort to retrieve it — and that takes work.”
Dancers and athletes worry about their knees going, but for an actor, it’s the mind. Do you ever think about that? Irwin’s eyes lit up with laughter. “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Irwin, who lives in New York, explained, “I come to the Taper whenever I can. I’m here to shoot a big movie with [film director] Christopher Nolan called Interstellar so tomorrow morning at 7 am, I’ll be on a set.”
After the show, cast and friends were ready for drinks and a wonderful buffet at Kendall’s on Grand. Dennehy arrived and smiled for photos, then retreated to a booth where he was quickly surrounded by close friends and family. Although I would have loved to chat with him, I understood that additional speaking for an interview would not be high on his agenda tonight.
Hearing that Dennehy’s understudy, Adrian Sparks, had gone on during previews, I quickly located him. “I’ve been on six times with two shows on a Sunday.” Can you tell me about the first time? Sparks smiled broadly, “Ah, yes. I had 45 minutes notice. The first time I ever heard my voice in the Mark Taper Forum was during that first performance. I said the first line and thought well, that’s what it sounds like in here.”
How much rehearsal did he have? “None. I just worked by myself. They called me at about 5:30 and said Brian’s ill; we’re taking him to the ER and can you go on? I don’t have to, because according to Equity rules if I don’t have a rehearsal I don’t have to do it — but I did and it worked out okay.”
You were ready? “Yeah.” You knew all the lines? “Yeah.” You didn’t wear an earpiece? “No. No. I called for lines maybe five times. Steve (director Robman) went into the house and explained we had an emergency and the understudy has had no rehearsal, so [Robman] told him it was okay to ask for a line if he needs it. The five times I asked, it wasn’t because I didn’t know a line — it was, what scene am I in now? The play is completely non-linear and always changing. The lights came up and I was thinking, wait, what am I saying now, because if I say the wrong thing we’re at the end of Act Two. The gal on script was amazing; she just gave me a few words and we were off and running again.”
Sparks spent nearly 30 years doing Shakespeare (including the role of King Lear), so he is familiar with learning difficult text. “This is impossible to memorize by rote. You must have a logical sequence in your brain. When I’m talking about Dolly’s shoes, I know I have to get to throwing him in prison — in my brain I figure Dolly’s shoes make me think of being a policeman, policeman means throwing him in jail — then the words come out.” He gets to emotional places by dissecting the script and again cited his work with Shakespeare. “Shakespeare has no stage directions. It’s simple. Enters. Exits. And dies! Those are the three stage directions right? You have to look at the words and be a detective. Why does he say this to her at this point?”
Actors often have someone feeding them lines to check memorization while they’re learning the script, but Sparks did not. “I hike every morning. I learned that when you oxygenate your brain, things stick really good. Every morning I’d take two pages of text with me and go for an hour hike. By the end of the hour I memorized two pages.”
He also did not follow understudy rehearsal protocol — spending all day watching and writing down blocking. “I told the stage manager 90% of this job is memorizing the words. If I spend my time watching them figure out the blocking, I’m not memorizing my words. Better I should go away and memorize. Thankfully it paid off. Instead of waiting to be rehearsed, I was ready to go.”
I was curious about how he got the role. Sparks’ sense of humor is always at the forefront. “They needed somebody who (a) had a good Irish accent and (b) was good with text.” He added, “This was quite heavily contested because it was such a major role.” Why does he think he was chosen? “Odd you should ask, because tonight I ran into the woman who was the reader and she told me she’d never seen anything like this. ‘You came in and just told us a story and it wasn’t until you were done that I realized you were acting.’ So, basically when you’re in an audition situation, you’re in a small room. If I start doing a big performance instead of just talking to the people I’m reading with, they can’t see the truth of what I’m saying — just that he can perform big. What people want is truth — true emotions. The words don’t create the emotions, they come from the emotions.”
When cast as the understudy, did he think he’d ever get on stage and do the role? Sparks sparkled with laughter. “I’m an actor. I always think I’m gonna get on.”
Director Robman relaxed with his wife, actress Kathy Baker, at the party. What was he proudest about tonight? He smiled. “Well, that Dennehy made it through standing up at the end. The actor who originally did this role was the great Donal McCann who was 51. Brian is 75. I saw the Lincoln Center archive tape. For a man at the actual character’s age of 75 to do this and still be standing at the end of it, not to mention after a long weekend of shows, well — Brian is a powerful guy, and he’s the one to try it.”
The play touches on many things: Irish history, dementia, revolution — what would the director like audiences to take away from it? “There are two places where the main character talks about salvation lying in how you treat your family, and that’s what the story is about. It’s what can touch everyone, whether you know or care about Irish history. It’s about an old man looking back on his life and trying to redeem himself by acknowledging the mistakes he made with his family and that there is some redemption in cleansing your conscience.
“At the end he says the mercy of fathers shows through. In the last monologue, he thinks about the parental dynamic between parents and their children as something that must be cherished and of such great value that it can outweigh their mistakes.”
The Steward of Christendom continues at the Taper through January 5.
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“…we are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of the day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” –Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture.