Sidelined for a few months by a foot injury, actress and Princeton University undergrad Phoenix Gonzalez is rested and raring to go in her role in Princeton playwright Marvin Cheiten’s new work, “Touching a Goddess.” A co-production of Princeton Summer Theater and Theatre Intime, Cheiten’s fifth play in as many years will premiere at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University on Friday, August 21, and will run through Sunday, August 30.
Gonzalez, who just got back to Princeton from her home in Coral Gables, Florida, hurt her foot celebrating a successful run of the student-penned musical “Waking Orpheus,” which was performed at Princeton last spring (she played Persephone). “I tried to go for a celebratory run in the fountain in front of the Woodrow Wilson School and missed a step,” she says, a little sheepishly.
In Cheiten’s new play, Gonzalez plays Suzy Taylor, star athlete and popular senior at a local prep school, daughter of an affluent family, whose world is turned around when she meets the new girl in school, Terri (Lisa Pettersson). Also in the mix are Suzy’s brother, Harry (Harrison Hill), and their parents (Christopher Berger and Wendy Evered). Set in the 1950s, “Touching a Goddess” is directed by Cheiten’s longtime collaborator Dan Berkowitz, well-known in Princeton as co-founder and director of the Inn Cabaret.
Suzy and the other main characters in “Touching a Goddess” are taken aback by the arrival of the street-smart, physically powerful Terri, who has transferred to the upper-class private school from public school. To the Taylors, who seem to have everything, Terri might as well be from a different planet. Suzy is first challenged by the new girl, then becomes attached to her, which spins the Taylors’ blissful life out of control.
But the play is not about class differences, Gonzalez says. “Touching a Goddess” is about love. “Especially love coming to you in unexpected ways,” she says. “There’s some question about Terri, whether she is a lesbian or not. In the ‘50s, this issue wasn’t on anyone’s radar. “Suzy is the popular girl at school, outgoing, athletic — in fact, the star basketball player — and Terri comes into the picture and challenges everything she’s ever known. Terri puts Suzy in her place, but then gets a crush on her and starts to follow Suzy around. We end up developing a friendship. For awhile, we are living in this other, new world, and we love each other as friends. Then, it’s presented to me that this may be some other kind of love, something other than friendship. There was this brief point in time when we could be friends and not worry about what other people thought, but that doesn’t last for long and our new world collapses.”
Harry’s malevolent friend, Dicky (Joseph Thomas), plants the seeds of gossip that cause trouble in the Taylor family. Intellectually and scholastically gifted, Harry is persuaded by Dicky’s rational line of reasoning about Terri and her possible gender preference. “Harry is open to logical arguments, and that is both his strength and weakness,” Gonzalez says. “Dicky lists the evidence. Harry is susceptible to this, and thinks it makes sense. Then he presents it to me and it destroys my friendship with Terri.”
This is Gonzalez’ first time working with playwright, poet, and patron of the arts Cheiten and his longtime friend and collaborator Berkowitz. She says she is pleased to be involved in the fast-paced intensity of the summertime project, which will wrap up in time to concentrate on her junior year. “It’s a huge summer for me,” she says, musing on the future, and knowing that now is the time to make decisions about her career. “I’d like to pursue acting after I graduate and had been feeling like I wanted to try something out in a more professional atmosphere. This was one of the best opportunities I’ve had and it’s great because it’s in August, which I thought would be a perfect time. In contrast, a lot of theater takes take up your whole summer. When I heard about the opportunity, I was determined to audition for it. I went in on my crutches and got the part.”
Gonzalez is an only child who lives with her mom, a middle school teacher, and her father, a CPA who works for the auditor general of the state of Florida. She says her parents have been very supportive of her creative life and have creative inclinations themselves but focused on more practical pursuits professionally. “My dad has told me, ‘Whatever you do, DO NOT become an accountant,’” Gonzalez says. “He’s always told me to find my passion and not to worry about the money. As long as I do what I love, the money will come.”
She adds that her parents jokingly argue about which side of the family instilled her with musical talent. “When I was little, my mom would always sing to me. She’s from Asheville, North Carolina, and her grandparents were mountain people who sang in competitions in the South. I just visited my Nana in North Carolina and she remembered how she, her parents, brothers, and sisters would just get together in the evenings and sing. There was no TV so they made music.
“However, my dad likes to claim that it was his side of the family who gave me my talent,” she adds, noting at least one relative who was in show business in pre-Castro Cuba.
Gonzalez fell in love with singing as a child, inspired in part by Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Later, an opportunity to sing and perform came through church, where the choir director recognized her talent, and recommended voice lessons. Another mentor was Gonzalez’ middle school drama teacher, who encouraged the young woman to audition for the New World School of the Arts in Miami. There, she studied acting, directing, voice, dance, and music theory, among other classes.
At Princeton, Gonzalez is in the certificate program for theater, majoring in religion. She played Cordelia in last spring’s production of “King Lear” (a collaboration between Princeton Shakespeare Theater and Theatre Intime) and appeared in Princeton University Player’s February staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. She is also a member of the student a cappella group Shere Khan.
The mid-Atlantic chill and change of seasons doesn’t bother the Florida native, who is thinking about her career and debating between staying close to New York, or returning to the Sunshine State after graduation. “I remember in Florida, if it dipped down to 70 degrees on Christmas day, it was a
real Christmas,” Gonzales says. “I really don’t mind the cold here, though, and it’s so pretty. In fact, some of the towns and countryside outside of Princeton reminds me of North Carolina.”
Gonzalez muses on the thoughtful subject matter of “Touching a Goddess,” reflecting on the meaning of true friendship and love. “Why would either of those things be forbidden?” she says. “If you find it, hold on to it, and make it work. But in this case, it just doesn’t work and you have to ask ‘why?’ and ‘what are the consequences?’”
“Touching a Goddess,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Opening on Friday, August 21, 8 p.m. Allied Playwrights presents Marvin Harold Cheiten’s newest play directed by Dan Berkowitz. Through Sunday, August 30. $16. 609-258-7062 or www.Marvincheiten.com.