interview: Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened their second season at the Winningstad Theater at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts with THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING by Richard Nelson.

From their original smash hit production of RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS at the 100 seat CoHo Theatre in the spring of 2005, to unforgettable shows like THE LONESOME WEST, GRACE, and THE PAVILION during three years in residence at the slightly larger IFCC, to full scale main stage triumphs like DEAD FUNNY, FABULOSO, THE LYING KIND, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA, and THE GRAY SISTERS in three years performing at the larger still World Trade Center, Third Rail has been on an elevator going up.

I caught up with the director and cast of HOPEY CHANGEY in September during rehearsals.

First can we talk about the cycle of Apple family plays by Richard Nelson. There are four and I guess you’re going to do all of them. Can you describe how that came about? Are you the only theatre doing all four of the plays?

Scott Yarbrough: We’re the only one at this point outside of the Public Theater, who originated them. We’ve talked to them about doing the whole four show cycle and they said yes to us, also with the option to do all four plays in rep the final year. Which I think is something that the playwright would like to see. Whether he would like to see us do it I don’t know, but he would like to see what that experience is, to see all four at the same time.

I saw HOPEY CHANGEY at the Public and really enjoyed it.

Michael O’Connell: How did they do it? We’ve got a few moments we’re still working on…

(laughs)

This play seems like a real actor’s piece. There’s so much in it, a lot you could miss if you just read it on the page. What are you finding? What’s the process been like of unpacking it?

Isaac Lamb: Difficult. It feels super complex. You read it on the page and if you didn’t know what to look for it would look deceptively simple because it’s just a dinner. But as we get into these scenes where there’s three or four conversations happening at the same time, some of them not with words, and there’s a lot of family history, you find that it’s difficult to navigate your way through it. We’ve had scenes where we ask what’s going to take the focus here, how are we going to find clarity in these really complex relationships?

Michael (O’Connell), you play Richard, the lawyer. What are you finding that like?

MO: I think of it as how is he different from me. And so far, he’s not that much different from me. But what I’ve been working on is what I call his veneer, which is much different than mine. He works for the Attorney General and there’s a certain amount of control he must maintain, a certain amount of civility, a certain amount of withholding. He was raised with three sisters, and I think that’s a big part of who he is. He’s a different person in his office I think than he is in his family. In the beginning I think there’s a lot of his world from New York. With his opening speech, that’s Richard at his most New York.

And then, just like everybody does when they go home to their family, they bring their self, who they are in the world, then as they spend time with their family, their old self starts to come back. They’re older mirrors of themselves, and it starts to affect their behavior. So by the end of the play it’s almost as if he reverts back to being almost childlike or at least a brother being affected a great deal by his sisters.

Tim (character played by Isaac Lamb) is the newcomer who doesn’t necessarily know a whole lot about where the bodies are buried in this family or what’s going on, but he seems to do ok. How are you finding him?

IL: It’s a very fresh feeling for me. I’m engaged and have recently gone through the process of meeting the family for the first time. That whole idea of trying to figure out political tensions between brother and sister and mother and father and do it well and meet the family well and all that kind of stuff. It’s such a nerve-wracking thing for a young man. Rehearsing the play has brought a lot of that back! In a good way. It’s interesting because I feel like for Tim the challenge is similar I think to what the audience is going to go through as they watch the play. And that is to come into the middle of this family. In our conversations with Richard (Nelson) he talks about wanting to start the play off with the feeling that you’re in the middle of something. The audience is thrust into the living room with these people, just like Tim. They have to figure out family history and what can you say, what are you allowed to say. There’s a lot of Tim dipping his toe in the water. Jane pulls him back or gives him a signal that no, it’s not the right time to speak. A lot of that, he’s sort of the representative of the audience on stage in a lot of ways. He gives the play a bit of relief occasionally. In the midst of all the tension, he’ll mention how much he loves wooden signs or missed the fall foliage. It’s going to be fun to play with the comedy of that.

Bruce, you’re Uncle Benjamin, who is somewhat memory-challenged. He says he has amnesia?

Bruce Burkhartsmeier: He had a heart attack and has amnesia, he can’t remember short term memories. His long term memory’s not much better.

What’s it like playing that guy?

BB: It’s kind of challenging. We’ve been playing around with how that physicality manifests itself. I think I dug myself kind of a big hole at the beginning to make it more physically apparent than I think we’re going to take it eventually. He seems more normal than I originally envisioned. It will be more disconcerting when his apparent normality changes as he responds to things. That’s what we’re going for, which is different than I thought. And playing a famous actor is rather a stretch for me, considering I’m known all the way to Beaverton. And Gresham.

(laughs)

The tone of this play is funny and also sad. He’s very skillful at evoking the larger world with very few words. The family is a microcosm at this kind of a horrible moment in history.

Scott: One of the traps of the play is that we rely too heavily on pointing at the politics as being political. Politics is another tool put to use in the play to learn about the relationships and to learn about the characters and to evoke passions. When we talked with Richard Nelson on the phone he was very clear that this play has no ideology in it, and if you lean into that you’re sort of doomed. Which was very refreshing for me trying to figure out how this play sits in a room with a bunch of people. We had to focus on the people in the room and the relationships. It was very freeing that you’re not trying to tell this other message about how doomed we are or aren’t as a nation. It’s really about there’s tensions out there in the world and those tensions are reflected in this room.

Are you planning to do all four plays in rep the last year?

SY: At this point. We’ll see if we survive this one.

(laughs)

This play is kind of a departure for Third Rail, and yet it’s also a natural fit. Had you been thinking of doing it for a while?

SY: We read it as a possible play to open at the Winningstad (last year), but it felt a little gentle and quiet for that debut. We were also a little concerned about the timing of it, because we would have been doing it the year after it was set, and even the playwright was uncertain about its shelf life. We read it and there was a lot that we liked about it, but we decided to put it on the shelf, not knowing that there was this whole cycle planned. Once SWEET AND SAD came out and we learned that this was an ongoing project, all of a sudden it made sense for us to really look at it, to look at the type of opportunities that this sequence of plays could provide for the company but also for our audience to go on this journey for multiple years. The ability to work with the same actors and characters over a four year process and being one of the few companies that I feel is built to be able to do that was very exciting.

Will there be any material in the program to remind Northwesterners who some of these east coast political figures are?

SY: We’ll have a glossary. When we talked to Richard, he was working on the theory that the more specific you make a world, the more universal it actually becomes. That’s what it feels like to me. There’s a danger of putting too much emphasis on who those people are in terms of trying to provide context outside of a program announcement. The characters just know who they are and are responding to them. That’s the best way to navigate that.