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This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the January 18, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Preview: Eugene O’ Neill at McCarter
What do you do after you make your Broadway directorial debut with a
mega-musical that’s drawing capacity audiences? You go up in an
airplane and jump out. Or at least, that’s what you do if you are
daring director Gary Griffin. "Sky diving is a great release." That
can be taken figuratively as well as literally.
Fresh from his success in the Big Apple with "The Color Purple,"
Griffin brings his adventurous spirit to a new staging of Eugene
O’Neill’s last play, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," now in previews at
McCarter’s Berlind Theater. Opening night is Friday, January 20, and
the production runs through February 19.
As we talk backstage at the end of a day’s rehearsal, I quickly learn
that not only is this a man who would jump out of an airplane for fun,
but also a man who always is looking for challenges and something new.
So we may well find surprises in this production of "A Moon for the
Misbegotten." This is a play that Griffin has says he has loved for
many years, adding that it is a masterpiece filled with "awesomely
gifted writing." But as he does when he looks at any play, be it a new
piece or a classic, he likes to look at it with fresh eyes.
There are things in the text that he doesn’t feel were realized in
productions that he has seen. In particular he says that the role of
the daughter, Josie, and her "gentleman caller," Tyrone, were usually
played by actors much older than the script describes. In the four
major New York productions, Tyrone was played by actors all over 50:
Franchot Tone in 1957; Jason Robards in 1973; Ian Bannen in 1984; and
Gabriel Byrne in 2000. In McCarter’s staging, youngish former
brat-packer and New Jersey native Andrew McCarthy steps into the role.
At 42 McCarthy is "just the right age as O’Neill wrote the character,"
says Griffin. "I understand the reasons older actors have been cast,
but wondered what we would reveal about the play if we pitched them
closer to the ages written in the text." He feels this casting choice
uncovers the play’s theme of potential for love: "If the stars were
aligned right – the possibilities – could these two `make it’?"
When most directors think about "A Moon for the Misbegotten," they
focus on the romantic scene in the third act between Josie and Tyrone.
As Griffin has explored the play, he has been drawn to the
father/daughter relationship. In the program notes, Griffin is quoted
as saying: "It’s a very specific parent-child relationship that anyone
who has taken care of their parent as an adult will understand – a
relationship that changes to where you have a kind of equality."
He says he also has found a lot of humor in the script. "I would love
for this to be the funniest production of `A Moon for the Misbegotten’
that people have ever seen." O’Neill’s love of vaudeville is evident
in the script, says Griffin. The challenge, he feels, is to bring to
the script today’s sensibilities, reference them to the time of the
play, and maintain the integrity of the playwright’s message.
Griffin sees the message of this play as a search for survival.
"Living is a very lonely experience for most people. When we take the
masks off and admit who we really are, we face the truth about
loneliness, the terror of it. Hope is what gets us through. We believe
in the potential for something. Facing it with another person makes
you feel less vulnerable."
Even though staging a play is certainly a collaborative effort,
Griffin finds a kind of loneliness in his own experience as a
director. Ultimately the director has the final responsibility. "I’m
right out there on my own on the edge – which makes it terrifying and
wonderful." A theatrical equivalent of sky diving. Griffin says: "If
you don’t inhabit an O’Neill play 100 percent, it doesn’t work. That’s
the scary part. You must surrender yourself to what he’s doing, build
on that, and trust him completely. I want to honor the passion with
which O’Neill wrote this play."
Griffin first came to the McCarter in the 2004 season, to restage his
minimalist version of the musical "My Fair Lady." McCarter’s artistic
director Emily Mann had seen the groundbreaking Chicago production,
and Griffin says she "shared my vision and understood the specialness
of what we were doing."
He didn’t set out to make a name for himself with minimalist
productions of large musicals. And he has actually only done a few. In
addition to "My Fair Lady," he is noted for his stagings of two
Sondheim musicals, "Pacific Overtures" and "Sunday in the Park with
George." He has also staged some abridged versions of Shakespeare for
the Chicago Shakespeare Theater where he is associate artistic
director. "It just sort of happened," he says. He thought, "What would
be wonderful to try?" and admits, "My career moves have never been
There was some surprise in the theater world when Griffin was chosen
as the director for the musical version of the African-American
classic, "The Color Purple," based on the novel by Alice Walker. After
all, he is a white man – and the sweep of the epic story of Celie is
far from his recent minimalist visions. Actually, as a young director
in Chicago, he had built a rather solid reputation for staging
extravagant big musicals. But it’s pretty obvious now that this is a
director who isn’t easily pigeon-holed, unless that "hole" is
"something new and exciting."
Griffin, 45, was born in Rockford, Illinois, where he and his brother
grew up enjoying a home full of entertainment and music. His father
was an automobile engineer for Chrysler and his mother worked for New
York Life Insurance. His brother became a professional musician for a
while before going into the business world. Though he did perform in a
high school play, Gary Griffin’s interest in theater wasn’t fired
until, as a teenager, he stumbled upon the cast albums of "Funny Girl"
and "A Chorus Line." With the latter, he says he was "knocked out by
the power of it." He finally saw a national touring company
performance and that was the clincher. "From then on, I knew that
theater was going to be a big part of my life."
Enamored of the journalist heroes in the movie "All the President’s
Men," Griffin started as a journalism major at the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but he changed his major to theater, graduating
in 1982. He earned an MFA in directing from Illinois State University
in 1986. His first Chicago directing job was in 1988.
His credo seems to have been established early: "What’s the pathway
that can give me the most? I want to learn. Theater is a great way to
learn. I don’t want life to be boring so I’m constantly exploring. I
tend to try to find things that have challenges that I will grow
with," says Griffin. "What would be exciting to try?"
His parents were supportive of his theater career and his mother flew
up from Florida, where she now resides, for the opening of "The Color
Purple." Griffin smiles as he tells me how awed she was by the big
event and the festivities. His father died when Griffin was 20, and he
is very close with his mother whom he laughingly admits, "is not my
Currently Griffin has a home in Chicago, but his travels with various
theater productions means that he’s often on the road, leaving behind
his two cats. Fortunately he feels that home is basically a lot of
elements. "If you’re at peace with what you’re doing and how you’re
doing it, if I feel the power of what I’m doing, I feel happily at
home." His time with "Pacific Overtures" at the Donmar Warehouse in
London was an opportunity to explore a part of history that was new to
him. And he explains that once he got used to the currency and traffic
on the "wrong side" of the street, he felt right at home.
Change of pace is essential for Griffin, whose work schedule sounds
daunting. During rehearsals, he always tries to find two hours that
are completely away from theater to give his mind a rest from work.
"Otherwise, you’re just obsessed."
When he takes a break, he likes to read, most recently finishing Doris
Kearns Godwin’s "Team of Rivals" about the life and times of Abraham
Lincoln. And he loves to go to restaurants with friends and talk about
anything but theater. Then, of course, there’s always sky diving.
After "A Moon for the Misbegotten" Griffin will step right into his
next project, another large musical that is in a mid-point in its
development process, "The Boys are Coming Home," a musicalization of
"Much Ado About Nothing" set in 1940s America with a jazz swing score.
A Moon for the Misbegotten, McCarter’s Berlind Theater, 91 University
Place. Eugene O’Neill’s drama featuring three unforgettable
characters. Directed by Gary Griffin. Through February 19.
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