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No "Stranger" to The Stage

No "Stranger" to The Stage

Actor David Strathairn makes it clear that, despite the intensity of the role (and therefore its appeal to an actor), he might not have played Hush in "Stranger" by Craig Lucas. "If the play had been skewed in the direction of 'Let's look at crazy people,' instead of a serious investigation into schizophrenia, a pervasive condition today, I wouldn't have done it. This is no tabloid story. It's a love story, however twisted and bizarre."

The play in question, slated to open Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on Oct. 17, examines the evolving relationship between two deeply troubled individuals (Strathairn and Kyra Sedgwick), awash in demons, who meet on an airplane and end up in her backwoods cabin.

Without giving too much of the story away—there is an element of mystery—the two engage in some kinky S & M games that bring to the surface the thorny issues surrounding choice, victimization, and abuse. Who's doing what to whom?

Strathairn plays a schizophrenic ex-con—yes, he has the improbable name of "Hush"—who has just been released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence for kidnapping. In his schizophrenic state, he previously heard voices in his head. Not just any voices (no, no), but God battling the Devil. And the latter won.

Now on medication and thus functioning (within parameters), Hush finds God on the winning side. Put simply, religion coupled with a mood-altering drug—a Seratonin-uptake inhibitor, we assume—have brought him a degree of peace and stability. Paradoxically, Strathairn's Hush, demented to the core, is actually rather endearing. He is totally convincing in his role.

"This man is dangerous, but you can't play him 'crazy,' on the one hand, or a charming sicko, on the other, " asserts Strathairn, a good-looking 50-ish San Francisco native, who is conducting the interview over the phone. "Our challenge is not to be making any blanket statements. People who are schizophrenic represent a range of personalities."

Strathairn boned up for his role, he notes, by interviewing psychiatrists, reading books and articles about schizophrenia, and viewing "47th Street," a documentary about Fountain House, a home for the mentally ill.

Equally mined, if not more so, is the presentation of religious fervor, which is equated, at least in some way, with psychopathology. "The play is neither indicting nor endorsing religion, but for Hush religion is a life raft. Religion—believing in something—is his handle."

Strathairn has worked as an actor fairly steadily for close to 25 years and boasts an array of Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, including "The Three Sisters," "Ashes to Ashes," "Eyes for Consuela," "Hapgood," and "A Lie of the Mind." Among his films: "A Map of the World," "L.A. Confidential," "The Firm," and a host of movies by John Sayles. Yet, he suggests "Stranger" is one of the most difficult projects he has been engaged in, but not for the reasons one might expect.

Admittedly, the play dramatizes "extreme states," he says, but, curiously, it's not that hard to hook into this material. More challenging than playing the character—"and creating an integrated human being"—is the challenge of the play as a whole. "It's such a brave, complicated work." And then there are the technical stumbling blocks—from the fight scenes to the language, "which have their own particular rhythms and music."

In contrast to the interest he expresses talking about "Stranger," on other topics he is reluctant, perhaps resistant. He offers little information; in fact, he is downright non-committal.

Preferring a Day Job

The son of a general practitioner/general surgeon, Strathairn recalls growing up with no particular career ambitions. "I played it as it lay," he remarks cryptically. At Williams College in Massachusetts, he moved from major to major—he doesn't want to discuss it further—and ultimately graduated with a liberal arts degree.

And in like-minded fashion, as he tells it, he got into acting almost serendipitously, appearing in school plays followed by stints in summer theatre, and then children's theatre, before arriving in New York in the '70s to pound the perennial sidewalk in search of acting gigs.

Throughout, he has held a host of day jobs; he concedes it's quite possible he'll go back to one after "Stranger" has completed its run, although he's vague as to what those day jobs were, are, or may be in the future. "I've done everything, everything." And he insists, in a surprised tone (as if the question has not occurred to him), that he has no idea what he'd be doing if he weren't an actor.

Still, he never studied acting formally and doesn't view that as a loss. "All my training has been on the job." Not unexpectedly, however, he has strong views on what he looks for—and conversely steers clear of—in a director.

"I hate a director who is jobbed in, stages a play, and leaves. The director's job is so important. He has to love the play and come in with his own vision, whether it's a new play or a classic. At the same time, the good director gives the actor the room to move around and make him [the actor] feel that he is contributing. The good director has the confidence to make it possible for the actor to do what he has to do."

Asked about possible dream roles or gigs, he contends he has none. Even a TV series—with the exposure and big bucks that may come with it—has no particular allure for Strathairn. "Depends on the material. I've turned down quite a few scripts because I didn't like them. Yes, I'd rather have a day job than appear in something I don't like."

As observed, despite the juicy role "Stranger" offers him, he would have backed out if it had been conceived as a case study and/or written to appeal to prurient tastes.

Indeed, the play and audience response—not to mention possible audience misperception—are on his mind, pointedly so. "I just hope audiences appreciate what [playwright] Craig Lucas is trying to do. He is depicting two people who for some reason have a deep connection to each other. They are not simply 'sick.' We are not telling audiences what to think or feel about these characters. I would like audiences to walk out of the theatre talking about what they've just seen. Look, there are as many ellipses in the issues as there are in the dialogue."

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