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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 20,
2004 issue of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
‘Willie B Came Into the Sun’
Directing plays in Siberia, as well as Europe and the Middle East, may
have been unique and rewarding experiences for renowned Bronx-born
theater director Robert Kalfin. But coming to Trenton to direct
"Willie B. Came Into the Sun," a work by a playwright he has long
admired, has its special rewards. Part of this reward for Kalfin is to
continue his long-standing friendship and artistic relationship with
June Ballinger, artistic director of the Passage Theater Company,
where the play is being produced and where he directed Cynthia Adler’s
"Downloaded: And In Denial," a one-woman show for the series "Solo
Flights," last February.
Kalfin’s long and creatively diverse career includes directing five
Broadway shows: "The Me Nobody Knows" (1971); "Yentyl" (1976); "Happy
End" with Meryl Streep (1977); "Strider" (1979); and "Truly Blessed"
(1990) with Queen Esther Marrow portraying Mahalia Jackson. More
significantly, Kalfin was considered a major force in the American
theater during the 1960s and 1970s. As the founder of the multi
award-winning Chelsea Theater Center, his work was documented in the
book "Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater."
"Willie B. Came Into the Sun" by Australian native and Atlanta
resident Jean Sterrett is a play that both Kalfin and Ballinger
admired and have worked to bring to the stage. "Sterrett is an
extraordinary writer. I’ve known her work since the Chelsea Theater
days. There are, at least, three or four of them I’d like to do," says
Kalfin, who believes that this playwright, who he says won’t admit her
age (but he guesses to be around 80) has yet, to the best of his
knowledge, seen a play of hers receive a professional production.
Although, as Kalfin explains, Sterrett was trained as a concert
pianist before she married an American G.I. and settled in Atlanta,
"she started writing and submitting plays all over the place as well
as to me at the Chelsea Center."
"I’ve known about ‘Willie B.’ and have admired it for a long time even
before it recently won a major award." The play received an award of
distinction in 2001 from the Onassis International Cultural
Competition, where it was chosen from among 537 plays submitted from
74 countries. "I’ve been trying to get this play on for at least 10
years, and have had three readings of it," says Kalfin.
It’s not that Sterrett hasn’t been trying to interest producers and
directors in her plays over the past 25 years in Atlanta, where she
has worked as musician, actress, director, and playwright. Kalfin says
he was astonished to find out that Sterrett, who, despite living near
Atlanta’s famed Alliance Theater Company, couldn’t get one of her
plays so much as read by them. And when she won the Onassis award, she
didn’t even get a mention in the local newspaper.
Set in the mountains of Vietnam, "Willie B." explores the relationship
between a bereaved Vietnamese father whose family, including his wife,
was wiped out during an American raid, and a young American soldier he
has captured. The ironic thread that links the two, Kalfin explains,
is that the wife of the Vietnamese man was a musician and that the
American is a classical pianist and that it is a form of retribution
or closure for the Vietnamese man to keep the American captive long
after the war is over.
The American uses his vivid imagination to create a fantasy world
where he can escape from his captivity into theater, music, and
romance. The play’s timeline is from 1969 to 1993. As time passes, the
Vietnamese captor beings to realize, as Kalfin understands it, "that
he too has become a captive of what he instigated." He quotes a line
spoken by the Vietnamese man: "What I’ve done is ruined your life and
ruined my life as well."
I don’t want to give away the plot," says Kalfin, "but it’s
heartbreaking how he tries to make it up to him."
Kalfin is fascinated by the play’s unique format. "It is a memory
play, but it doesn’t have, in deference to ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ a
narrator. The characters go back and forth in memory. While the issues
are serious, music is interwoven into the story to provide humor and
to illuminate the different times in the main character’s life.
"Throughout the play," he says, "the soldier is trying to hold on to
his music, his life, his identity, and his contact with the world that
has been lost to him, including the woman he was in love with. The
best thing about this character is that he is just an ordinary
American kid with a musical gift."
Classical music on a grand piano transports us to the soldier’s
boyhood musical lessons; American Gershwin classics remind him of his
first meeting with his girlfriend; and traditional Vietnamese music,
played on a dan bau brings him back to his present circumstances. As
the decades pass, captor and prisoner must find a way to come to terms
with each other – and in doing so demonstrate a common humanity and a
desire to find peace.
Kalfin pays what sounds like the highest compliment to Sterrett when
he suggests that this play, in particular, belongs to a long tradition
of anti-war plays, and most notably relates to Edna St. Vincent
Millay’s "Aria da Capo," in that it deals with a perennial theme:
humanity overriding the differences between people who are supposedly
enemies. Kalfin believes that doing this play at this time is
important. As he says, "it concerns a young man who is captured and
remains a hostage, whose life and potential is thwarted by a war,
something we need to think about."
As Kalfin credits Sterrett for being wonderfully theatrical in her
imagination, he says to physically realize that imagination was his
job, conceding that it probably would be easier to do as a film rather
than on the stage, where characters appear and disappear and ghosts
are summoned from the past. Kalfin has been collaborating with
Sterrett for more than a year on the development of the play.
"This is a very big show in technical terms in what it needs in lights
and sounds. Besides the five characters that appear on stage, there
are voices in the soldier’s head from places other than Vietnam. But I
never panic. When you’ve directed as many shows as I have, there are a
lot of mistakes to draw upon," says Kalfin with a laugh.
His impressive regional theater credits, including NJ Repertory
Company and Shakespeare Theater of NJ, he says, have numbered four or
five a year since he received his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama
in 1957. The path to Yale included the High School of Music and Art
and Alfred University in western New York about which he says, "This
little liberal arts college has a fantastic theater department noted
for introducing the works of Brecht for the first time to America."
And yes, Kalfin recalls the three times that he directed in Russia as
happy experiences. "I first went to Russia as part of a delegation
from the American theater with seven or eight other theater directors
in the late 1970s," he says, recalling it happened right after the
Soviet Union had signed the Helsinki Agreement honoring American and
International copyright rules and paying royalties. This, it was
hoped, would also encourage Americans to produce Russian plays and to
send royalties back. It was there that Kalfin directed "Strider," an
adaptation of "Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse," a story by Leo
Tolstoy. Adapted by Kalfin for the English stage, "Strider"
subsequently had a six months run on Broadway and has since been
continuously staged with success around the world.
When given a choice to produce an American play, Kalfin picked
Thornton Wilder’s "The Skin of Our Teeth," which had been previously
banned in Russia. "It was 1992. I was in Novosibirsk, working at
Siberia’s largest repertory company, the Krasne Fakel," he recalls.
But it was in Moscow in 1994 at the Sfera Theater that Kalfin directed
"Eccentricities of a Nightingale," by Tennessee Williams, who, as
Kalfin reminds me, "is the most beloved writer in Russia after
Chekhov." At the time that he directed "Eccentricities," there were 13
different Williams plays all enjoying long runs. But, he adds sadly,
"I’ve been to Russia eight times, but each time it has gotten nastier,
less idealistic, and more cynical. I do, however, look back with joy
to my time in Siberia."
Kalfin uses the word joy again as he speaks about working with Johnny
Tran, who plays the Vietnamese farmer in ‘Willie B.’. "Not only is he
a breath-taking actor, but he speaks Vietnamese." Mr. Tran is a native
of Vietnam who immigrated to New York in 1975.
Broadway veteran Joy Franz plays the formidable French piano teacher
and major influence in the boy’s life. Franz’s storied theater career
includes performances in six Sondheim musicals on Broadway.
Patrick Holder and Adam Overett play the soldier at different ages.
Kalfin might admit that he left part of his heart in Siberia, but he
is also putting a lot of heart into this play.
Willie B. Came Into the Sun, Passage Theater, Mill Hill
Playhouse, Front & Montgomery Streets, Trenton; Through Sunday,
November 7. 609-392-0766 or visit www.passagetheatre.org.
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