A Conversation with Judd Hirsch — and Freud

If there’s one thing that makes actor Judd Hirsch grumpy, it’s when a critic throws in information that Hirsch considers extraneous or irrelevant to the current role that he’s playing. For example, he has played literally hundreds of roles in his more than 40-year career, but he is inevitably identified as “that guy from Taxi.” Similarly, because he has portrayed many men who are Jewish, his “Jewish persona” is occasionally mentioned even when he is playing a role that has no connection to being Jewish. “Narrow-mindedness gets into print, and it’s distasteful,” he says. If he were doing Shakespeare, would it be appropriate to mention that he is Jewish? If he were doing Shylock, perhaps. If Lear, no. His current role in Santa Monica, however, has him playing the quintessential Jewish atheist — Sigmund Freud. And, it turns out, Freud’s musings on the subject of religion are very similar to Hirsch’s. “Religion is not a point of birth,” Hirsch says. He was born in the Bronx to Jewish parents, his mother spoke Yiddish, and he was brought up as a Jew, but he notes that his family was not observant. He is an atheist, like Freud. “Religion came about because of the fear of life,” he offers. In Freud’s Last Session, currently at the Broad Stage, Freud is depicted near the very end of his life, living in London and dying painfully of cancer of the mouth. It is September 3, 1939, and as the play opens the voice of a BBC radio announcer is heard, reporting that efforts to avert World War II are at a stalemate. Freud is agitated, contemplating the ramifications of the announcer’s words at the same time he is contemplating his own suicide. But before he leaves this life he has scheduled a meeting with a younger man of letters, C.S. Lewis (played by Tom Cavanagh) — the philosopher, professor, and writer who converted from ardent atheist to the Church of England. Although they lived in England at the same time, there is no evidence that Freud and Lewis ever met. But playwright Mark St. Germain fashioned a conversation between the two men, based on their opinions and suggested by the book “The Question of God” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. Much of their banter is in the form of “Gotcha!”s. Lewis had written a book, “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” which satirized Freud as a man of “bombastic self-importance” and a “vain, ignorant old man.” In the play he urges Freud not to take it personally. “But,” he adds, “I can’t apologize for taking issue with your worldview when it completely contradicts my own.” Even so, Lewis admits to being curious to meet Freud. “Your writings are always thought provoking,” he says. “When I was a student in University we devoured (your) every book to discover our latest perversions.” “At Oxford, Freud’s peers were believers,” Hirsch interjects, “and he felt out of it. Now it was necessary for him to find something out. He had had 30 operations on his mouth and nothing worked. What was he looking for? “I think, though he never says it, that Freud was searching for the spirit,” he concludes. Playwright St. Germain set the play on this particular day in history, Hirsch believes, because it feeds into Freud’s despair. “How could God have done this?” Freud asks. He derides the thought that one needs to suffer to gain the promise of salvation and that great joy will come in the afterlife. In preparing himself for the role, Hirsch says, he learned about Freud from the way he expressed himself in his letters. “Charles Darwin was his personal saint,” Hirsch notes. Hirsch then digresses to discuss evolution, “minute cellular changes over millions of years,” and comments that “apes evolved late. What if man actually evolved at the same time?” Man “stood up to get away,” he declares. “There were fires, and eruptions, and seasonal changes, and man got up on his feet to look over the bushes to see what was going on. If he hadn’t developed the way he did, he probably wouldn’t have survived. He would have had the shortest run of any species on earth. “I would have liked to have gotten into Freud’s opinions of Darwin’s theories a little more,” he adds, “but if we had, the play would be five hours long.” Returning to the discussion of the many roles in which he has played a Jew, Hirsch says, “Nobody’s career should ‘represent’ anything. But one opportunity follows another, and sometimes you wind up

being asked to play similar roles again and again.” He goes on to say he especially admires “all those actors of the 1940s. They were realer than real, special kinds of persons,” he says. “There are hundreds of them!” He would have loved to have had the opportunity to work with Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, and John Garfield, he says. “You look at their work and you say ‘I want to be in that!’” Of the current crop of actors, he cites Ethan Hawke as “wonderful,” and John Procaccino as someone who is “up-and-coming. In fact, he has been up-and-coming for a very long time.” Procaccino was a fellow cast member with Hirsch in Herb Gardner‘s Conversations With My Father — a play that brought Hirsch a best actor Tony for its original run in 1992-93 — and again in a Broadway revival of Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns in 1996. Hirsch and Procaccino also were in the first LA cast of Conversations With My Father, in the fall of 1993 at the Doolittle Theatre (now the Ricardo Montalban) in Hollywood. Sylvie Drake, reviewing the production in the LA Times, wrote that Hirsch’s “Eddie is so vivid and oversized, so willing to defy the extortionist Jimmy Scalso (an excellent John Procaccino, re-creating his Broadway role), defend the wife he just as often verbally attacks, and spar honestly with sons that he mostly admonishes, that it is easy to see why he won a Tony for the role. Eddie is a complicated man with redeeming but unromanticized features, whose semi-denial of his Jewishness is only the expedient response to cultural maladjustment. It is easier to admire the man’s gumption than to like him.” Hirsch’s first best actor Tony was for Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, which Hirsch has played some 900 times — including two Broadway productions (1985-88 and 2002). Yes, it’s another Jewish role, but at least no one could say that Hirsch was typecast because of his age. He turned 50 in 1985 (he is now 77), but he was playing a man who is around 80 when the story of I’m Not Rappaport begins. Hirsch has played scientists, in such movies as A Beautiful Mind, where he played the head of the Princeton mathematics department. In Ordinary People he played a psychiatrist and was nominated for an Academy Award. Such roles come closest to his initial education at the City College of New York, where he received a degree in physics. Hirsch’s TV successes include a Golden Globe for his role as John Lacey in Dear John and two Emmys for his role in Taxi over its five-year run. He also starred in the TV series Delvecchio, George & Leo, Regular Joe and Numb3rs. As with most actors of his generation, his career was born in the theater. Having studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the famed HB Studios in New York, he went on to earn an Obie Award and nominations for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Talley’s Folly. He also directed and starred in productions of Yasmina Reza’s Art. Hirsch recently told interviewer Chris Jones, in an article that ran in the LA Times, that he has been “been aching to get back to the stage in a role of the right age.” Also in that Times article, Freud’s Last Session‘s lead producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland acknowledged considering that the Broad Stage production might move to Broadway (the play’s previous New York run was Off-Broadway, with lesser-known actors). If that doesn’t work out, though, how about bringing Hirsch back to Broadway in I’m Not Rappaport? In three years, he’ll finally be exactly the right age. Freud’s Last Session, Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 5 pm. Through Feb. 10. Tickets: $137- $54. www.thebroadstage.com. 310-434-3412. Photo: Judd Hirsch by Eric Schwabel Reprinted from LA Stage Times, published January 29, 2013

56 Up and the grace of God

If you live in a city that showcases art films, independent productions, and documentaries, you are very fortunate indeed.

In the event that you do, I would encourage you to find a feature film called 56 Up. It is a fascinating documentary that follows the lives of 14 diverse children from all over England, starting when they were seven years old, in 1964, and revisiting them every seven years.

Now 56, the “children” can look back on their lives and their accomplishments and, surprisingly, their disappointments, with an equanimity which seems to come with age.

But it wasn’t always so. In the beginning they were a bouncy lot, filled with opinions, judgments, and childhood dreams. At 14 they were beginning to question their convictions and revising their plans for the future. By 21 their lives had begun to fall into place, and by
28 most of them were married and many had children of their own.
By 35 several of them were divorced.

At 42 and 49 they had resigned themselves to their lives and, ironically, the more successful of them had some regrets and unfulfilled dreams, while the less affluent and successful appeared more accepting of their lot.

Contentment seemed to be the prevailing mood at 56, although by this time, having been filmed over nearly half a century, and having become minor “celebrities” in England, they were aware of the limits of their portrayals and their roles as “representative Brits.”

Michael Apted, who created the series for television in Britain and released it as a series of films in the U.S., has done a brilliant job of reprising each of their life stories with warmth and generosity, giving us a glimpse of the changes, physical as well as emotional, that they underwent over the years and reminding us once again who they were at each successive phase of their lives.

It’s a stunning documentary that touches everyone who watches it, inviting us to take stock of our own lives, and reminding us, inevitably, that there but for the grace of God…

Freud and Lewis: A Clash of Giants

So this Jewish atheist gets into a conversation with an atheist convert to the Church of England… Sounds like there should be a shaggy dog punch-line at the end, but instead you get Mark St. Germain’s riveting play, Freud’s Last Session , an imagined discussion between Sigmund Freud (Judd Hirsch) and philosopher C.S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh). And the punch-lines generally take the form of “Gotcha!”s as the two intellectual giants refute each other’s positions. Freud, who was 83 and very close to dying at that time (September 1939), was suffering from mouth cancer, and the fabulous Judd Hirsch is so convincing in his suffering that he makes you wince in sympathy. Although they lived in England at the same time, there is no evidence that he and C.S. Lewis ever met, but their dialogue and their banter is taken from their writings, and their comments dovetail beautifully. As they listen to Neville Chamberlain on the radio, they discuss the inevitable upcoming war. “When I looked out my window at home,” Freud says bitterly, “I saw only Nazis burning my books.” Lewis had written a book, Pilgrim’s Regress, which satirized Freud as a man of “bombastic self-importance” and a “vain, ignorant old man” and he urges Freud not to take it personally. “But,” he adds, “I can’t apologize for taking issue with your worldview when it completely

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contradicts my own.” “Which is?” Freud asks. “That there is a God. That a man doesn’t have to be an imbecile to believe in Him. And we feeble-minded who do, are not, as you claim, suffering from a pathetic “obsessional neurosis”, Lewis responds. Even so, Lewis admits to being curious to meet Freud. “Your writings are always thought provoking,” he says. “When I was a student in University we devoured (your) every book to discover our latest perversions.” They discuss the “God myths” of ancient cultures and of the Old and New Testaments and Lewis, who had shared Freud’s belief until recently that the concept of a Creator was patently infantile is accused by Freud of being the victim of either a conversion experience or an hallucinatory psychosis. “I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie,” Freud says. “I was the most reluctant convert in all England,” Lewis admits. “There was nothing I had a greater hatred of than being told what to do. That was the wonderful attraction of atheism: it satisfied my wish to be left alone. The God of the Bible is a bullying Busybody.” He delineates the logic that made him accept Christ as the son of God, however. There are three possibilities, he claims. Either Christ is a lunatic, or he was consciously deceiving his followers for some other purpose. “Power?” Freud interjects. “His followers deified him. He performed magic trick miracles. His strategy was a complete success.” “I wouldn’t call any strategy ending with crucifixion a complete success,” Lewis responds wryly. The third alternative, Lewis continues, is that Christ really is the Son of God. Freud, on the other hand, ends this segment of the discussion by demanding, “Do you think it coincidence Jesus demands his followers must be like children to enter Heaven? It’s because man has never matured to face that he is alone in the universe and religion makes the world his nursery! I have two words for you: Grow up!” The discussion is totally absorbing and interspersed, as serious conversation always is, with interruptions, digressions, tongue-in-cheek repartee, and phone calls. But the men manage to reveal their relationships with fathers they loathed and even veer onto the elusive subject of sex. Lewis was living at the time with his brother and the mother of his deceased best friend, and Freud questions Lewis’ attraction to the older woman. Whereupon Lewis questions Freud’s relationship with his beloved daughter Anna. Neither question is answered, but both men

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repeat Freud’s observation, “I always consider what people tell me less important than what they cannot.” Freud’s Last Session, suggested by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr.’s book The Question of God, is impeccably directed by Tyler Marchant and beautifully staged by Brian Prather in a comfortable, book-and-artifact-laden study in London that mirrors Freud’s previous study in Vienna. Mark Mariani’s costumes are appropriate, and Clifton Taylor and Beth Lake provide vivid lighting and sound design. But most of all, it’s a pleasure to watch the formidable Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh spar with each other. They are well-matched in this intelligent production as they deal with God, love, pain, death, fathers, morality, good and evil, myths, and sex. Who could ask for anything more? Freud’s Last Session will continue at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 5 pm through February 10th. Call 310.434.3412 for tickets.

The Rainmaker: a man, a spinster, and a little magic

If Robert Standley is The Rainmaker—and he most flamboyantly is—then Jack Heller must be the Starmaker for the way he directs Tanna Frederick in her role as Lizzie, the sad spinster-lady of the Curry family.

Usually cast as a ditzy comedienne, Frederick literally changes her persona to turn in a magnificent performance as a conflicted, tense, and prickly housekeeper for her father and two brothers. She is wound as tight as her hair, which is pulled back into an unflattering bun that makes the usually attractive Frederick look plain and unfeminine. It is clear she is aware of this quality when she invites Starbuck, the rainmaker, to talk with her “man to man.”

As the play opens, Lizzie is just back from a humiliating and fruitless visit to her cousin’s, whose family includes six bachelor brothers, five of whom don’t want to marry her. The sixth, who does, is nine years old.

Lizzie, who has a crush on a dour local deputy-sheriff (Scott Roberts) Is filled with dreams of marriage and intimacies (“Could you please scratch between my shoulder blades”) and avoids the suspicion that that dream will never come true.

But her older brother Noah (David Garver) is always there to confirm her fears. A bitter, angry man, Noah sees the worst in everyone. Which certainly doesn’t bode well for Starbuck, the rainmaker, when he shows up and offers to provide rain for the Currys’ drought-stricken farm.

Standley plays Starbuck delightfully over the top, embellishing his biography with fantasy, teeth clicks, and finger snaps as he bounces around the stage.

Stephen Howard and Benjamin Chamberlain, both of whom are wonderful, play the amicable father of the family, H.C., and the youngest son, Jim, who is sweet, but not so bright. These two, if not totally convinced that Stsrbuck can make it rain, are at least willing to give him the

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Lizzie and Noah are the holdouts, so Starbuck revs up the charm and, in Lizzie’s case, collides with her dreams, her hopes, and her vision of herself.

All the players are ablaze in this terrific version of N. Richard Nash’s classic play, thanks to Jack Heller’s careful direction, Christopher Stone’s beautiful set design, Juliet Klanchar’s lighting, and Kelly Fluker’s costumes.

But, bottom line, the play belongs to Tanna Frederick, and Meryl Streep couldn’t do it better.

The Rainmaker will continue at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Soundays at 5 through March 24th. Call (310) 392-7327 for tickets.

Photo: The Curry family (from left) David Garver, Stephen Howard, Tanna Frederick, and Benjamin Chamberlain

by Ron Vignone

On making The Rainmaker


You may think that all this rain we’re having is caused by a drop in barometric pressure. But are you aware that Tanna Frederick, Robert Standley and their director Jack Heller are in heavy-duty rehearsals for N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, which opens this week at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica? Apparently, whatever they’re doing to make rain, it’s working.

The three play mates recently paused to talk about their production.

Standley, who plays Starbuck, the rainmaker, begins by noting that this version has changed him, as did acting with Frederick under Heller’s guidance. “Lizzie [the role played by Frederick] is resigned to what life offers,” he says, “but Starbuck opens her up. She finds out who she really is. Then, in turn, she opens him up. And Jack, who is from the Actors Studio, will not allow us to have a false emotion.”

Lizzie is a spinster who helps with the family farm. She’s initially skeptical of Starbuck’s claims but then becomes captivated by the dreams and promises that he offers. “I have to continually assess where, when, and how Lizzie would do things. She still can dream, but it’s a question of discriminating between dream and delusion,” Frederick says.

Frederick was born and raised in Iowa, and “my family’s stock was always Midwestern practicality: safety vs adventure.” That might sound similar to Lizzie’s background, but “Lizzie is a very different character from me,” Frederick notes. Lizzie certainly wasn’t someone who would become a stage and film actress in Santa Monica.

Heller, whose long career spans acting as well as directing, played Lizzie’s younger brother, Jimmy, in an earlier production of the play. “I would do it 50 more times if I could,” he says.

“This play feels very real,” he continues. “It has a certain grittiness, like [the Elia Kazan-directed movies] Baby Doll and On the Waterfront.”

“This is as close as I will ever get to working with Kazan,” Frederick interjects.

“It all starts and ends with the actor,” Heller says. “If you don’t have actors doing their job you don’t have a show. Kazan let the actors soar.”

As for his own directing proclivities, he says, “I look for the comedy in the drama and the drama in the comedy…And for simplicity. Just ‘being’ instead of acting,” he adds.

“Jack has you hold things inside,” Frederick explains. “While Henry [her friend and mentor, writer/director Henry Jaglom] demands neuroses, Jack wants internal neuroses that build the character. He sees his job as containing and calming things down, and the energy just comes out for what you need.

“It’s like training for a marathon,” she adds. “You need to find the perfect pace that will get you to Boston.”

Frederick actually runs marathons. In addition, she is an active surfer and a co-founder of Project SOS—Save Our Surf, a non-profit charity that focuses on oceanic conservation activities and young people.

“We have 250 acres in Irvine, and this year we sent 1000 kids to camp,” she says proudly. “Many of them had never seen the ocean,” she notes, and they had never had a camping experience. The programs are all outdoors and many of them deal with awareness of and caring for the ocean. “We will be going to Hawaii soon to work with players from the NFL to clean up the beach.”

In addition, the organization runs Wahini, a leadership day camp for women that teaches them, among other things, to surf, to work on art projects, and to work toward personal empowerment. And Save Our Surf has installed wells in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Frederick recently completed a long run at the Edgemar as a dog named Sylvia and another as the lead in Jaglom’s play Just 45 Minutes from Broadway. The latter was made into a movie, in which Heller and Frederick play father and daughter. It’s currently playing in Beverly Hills.

Other films in which Frederick starred include Hollywood Dreams, Irene in Time, and Queen of the Lot, and in 2009 she won the Maverick Award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival and the Performer to Watch award from Method Fest.

Heller has directed more than 60 plays in the US and Canada and served as the artistic director for the Laurelgrove Theater Company. He recently played Tennessee Williams in Tennessee in the Summer, and he also directed and acted in The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams, for which he won LA Weekly Theater Awards for one-act performance and one-act ensemble. A student of Harold Clurman and Robert Lewis of the Group Theater, he is a lifetime member of Actors Studio’s directing and acting units. He has taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and spent several years teaching theater techniques to addicts at a halfway house, Beit T’Shuvah, to aid in their recovery.

Heller sees The Rainmaker as a “romantic comedy.” It takes place in the 1930s, in Depression-era America, when prolonged drought and sandstorms in the West were threatening to turn the area into what it later became, a Dust Bowl. Into this catastrophic situation comes a wandering con man, Starbuck, who guarantees to produce rain for a $100 fee.

Lizzie and her older brother Noah are realists. Lizzie sees Starbuck as a charlatan and even derides his “made up” name. In response, Starbuck tells her “The name you choose for yourself is more yours than the one you’re born with.”

“Lizzie is true to herself,” Heller says, “and many women are offended by that. She deals with reality and practicality as opposed to dreams and hopes, and sometimes those alternatives represent completely different worlds.”

“Jack is a master in the art of doing nothing,” Frederick says. “This play gives me a serendipitous opportunity to work with him, although that scares the shit out of me.”

Eventually, Lizzie must make an important decision, and Standley tells, with a laugh, of a previous production in which an 85-year-old woman in the audience apparently disagreed with Lizzie’s choice. “I would go with Starbuck!” she shouted, “and enjoy it for however long it lasted!”

The Rainmaker, Edgemar Center for the Arts, Main Stage, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica 90405. Thu-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 5 pm, through March 24. Tickets: $25-$34.99. www.edgemarcenter.org. 310-392-7327.


Photo: Robert Standley, Tanna Frederick, and Jack Heller
by Cynthia Citron

Foote Notes: A Little Off-Key

Soft-spoken playwright Horton Foote is to Texas what William Faulkner was to Mississippi: a faithful chronicler of the values and mores of a cultural subset of the American people. A major feature of both their bodies of work is their protagonists’ reaction to specific circumstances, disappointments, and defeat. “How a man reacts to the negative forces of life is how he should be measured,” Foote said. In two lengthy one-acts at the Open Fist Theatre, Foote introduces a young girl who is rebelling against the changes that will come when her widowed father marries a woman she sees as a threat, and, In the second offering, a distraught restaurant worker is finally forced to abandon his fanciful ambition to become an astronaut. In A Young Lady of Property, set in 1924, Wilma (Juliette Goglin) and

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her friend Arabella (Kiley Eberhardt) are plotting their escape to Hollywood to become movie stars. Famous movie stars. And Wilma, whose deceased mother had willed her the family homestead, is planning to rent it out in order to acquire the money for her Hollywood adventure. Her father, however, is making plans to sell it. The cast is uniformly okay, but whether it is the acoustics in the theater or tentative direction by Scott Paulin, the sound works against the production.

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Goglin, in a shrill little-girl voice, races through her lines so quickly as to be unintelligible. Then later, in a quieter moment, she and several of the cast members soften their delivery to such an extent as, again, to be unintelligible. Further, despite the action of the crew dashing in and out to reset the scenes, several of the scenes end in dialogue so lame that to follow them with a blackout and a scene change only emphasizes how ineffectual they are. In the second one-act, The Land of the Astronauts, it is 1983 and Phil (Aaron McPherson) has rebelled against a tedious and unfulfilling job which he had been lured to because of its proximity to Houston’s Space Center. As it turns out, the Space Center is something like 60 miles away and unavailable to him. So he has run away, like a little kid who wants to join the circus, while his frantic wife searches for him. There are 20 actors in the presentation, and it is lively, for the most part, albeit entirely predictable. Because you have figured out that Phil has run off to Houston, it is mystifying that that action has not occurred to his wife Lorena (a finely tuned Ina Shumaker). And so the “search” becomes overly long and just a tad tiresome—and even boring at times. Except when young Talyan Wright, who plays Phil and Lorena’s precocious daughter, is delivering her lines or practicing her tap dance routine. She is an amazing performer with none of the cloying “cuteness” that young actors often exhibit. Perhaps I am being overly harsh in my review of these two long one-acts, but I generally love the plays of Horton Foote and so I was disappointed that these were not, in my view, among his best works. This, despite the rave reviews they received from critics and word-of-mouth. In fact, the night I saw these plays was their second opening night; they had been brought back for a second run after a brief holiday hiatus. The two one-acts, collectively called Foote Notes, will continue at The Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., in Hollywood Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through February 9th. For tickets, visit the website at www.openfist.org. Photo: The cast of The Land of the Astronauts applauds as Talyan Wright practices her dance steps.