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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

carefully plotted."

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

fiercest critic."

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.

Something different.

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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