Playing a real-life historical character comes with formidable challenges, including the responsibility of being as true as possible to the person, based on what we know. When that character suffers through a great injustice yet isn't a very likeable individual, the ante goes up in evoking empathy. And when said character is also an uptight person, not used to showing emotion, the hurdle of assimilating these traits into an effective portrayal becomes even more daunting. Canadian-born Michael Tower, who moved to L.A. three years ago, passes these tests with flying colors in his finely textured performance as Jewish businessman Leo Frank, the wrongly convicted and ultimately lynched defendant in the infamous Mary Phagan murder case in 1913 Georgia.
Tower repeats a role he played two years ago in Jesse Waldinger's The Knights of Mary Phagan, which the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company has remounted—six key players repeating their roles and 29 new to the cast. "It was great to be able to revisit this role," he says. "I worked through all of the big challenges that first time and now can fine-tune further. My major issue was how to convey what this person is going through without having to say much. I have only three scenes with significant lines. I have to react to what's happening [while watching courtroom proceedings], but I don't want to divert the focus. There's so much important information conveyed in the dialogue. He's also very nervous and not socially adept. I saw a photograph of him with his arms firmly crossed, and I built upon that in developing the body language."
Tower says he added subtle touches here and there to show that this tightly wound man was not a completely cold fish, such as displaying a loving smile in a speech when he mentions his wife. Working in films, TV, and onstage, Tower is one of the few actors who doesn't mind dividing his career between emoting in a role and working in a restaurant. He feels that, while wearing either hat, it's about presentation and performance. "My focus is different than it used to be," he concludes. "It's not so much about what my career is going to be like. It's picking and choosing the roles I really want to do, and this one has been one of the very best."
"The Knights of Mary Phagan" continues at Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Through Mar. 20. $20. (323) 467-6688.