Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Notes from Annie's Garden: Working with playwright A.R. Gurney

By Annie Keefe
Associate Artist

I finally met A.R. (Pete) Gurney in 2000 when he graciously waived the royalties on his beautiful play LOVE LETTERS so that the newly minted board of the Playhouse could do one of its first fundraisers, with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman playing Melissa Gardner & Andrew Makepeace Ladd, III. It was early days, and all hands on deck. I was busy driving around Fairfield looking for a refectory table, some dictionary stands and some appropriate chairs for the event and then I stage managed it. The meeting was brief, probably a hand shake and a thank you, but it began a lovely friendship with one of the dearest theatre professionals one would ever want to meet. The Playhouse had already had a long association with Pete Gurney by the time we did that legendary Gala. Pete often credits the Playhouse with keeping him alive in the 80’s. I did my first season as resident stage manager in 1976 and Pete did his first show here in 1980. Before writing this post, I checked the number of Gurney plays done since that first production of CHILDREN. The grand total if you count this season’s LOVE AND MONEY is 15! I saw them all, and worked on four of them.

Sylvia, 1996
One of the most fun was his SYLVIA. This is his very funny tale of a man and his love for his Golden Retriever. Stephanie Zimbalist, then known for her role in the television show Remington Steele played the title role. The Playhouse was still part of a summer stock circuit so we played Ogunquit and The Cape Playhouse before coming to Westport. Jim McKenzie, a strong supporter of Pete’s work for nearly 20 years saw a runthru of the play in the rehearsal hall before we headed out on tour. Some of the language was very strong, and Jim asked Pete if he could tone it down for the run in Westport. To his credit, Pete said ‘no, the language stands’. To his credit Jim backed off, and when Stephanie/Sylvia had her famous altercations with that cat under the car, the air in the Playhouse was Blue!

Ancestral Voices, 2000
In 2000 Joanne and I programmed ANCESTRAL VOICES for a full run at the Playhouse. As is often done with Love Letters, we did a rotating cast. The first week saw the incomparable Fritz Weaver and the recently deceased Elizabeth Wilson. The second week saw Paul Newman and Joanne. It caused some considerable consternation with the people who missed ‘the home team’ in spite of the two excellent casts!

When in 2011 Pete had done some more work on a play of his called THE GOLDEN AGE, he came to the Playhouse to see if we would do a reading of his updated version so he could hear his changes with an audience. Of course we agreed and had a great time working with our dear friends Richard Thomas, Frances Sternhagen and the very funny Kathleen McNenny. And of course one of our all-time Gurney favorites was THE DINING ROOM, most recently produced in our 2013 season.

We are so excited to be doing the world premiere of LOVE AND MONEY before it goes to Signature Theatre in the fall with our cast and artistic team. Our next Gurney adventure! And the best part is that Pete will be around – a lot!

It is our great good fortune to have A.R. Gurney as a supporter. He is generous with his time, he attends our performances regularly and was our Gala Honoree last year. Pete and the Playhouse – a mutual admiration society – Long may it continue.

Annie with cast of
The Golden Age, 2011
The Dining Room, 2013

Photo Credits
Sylvia – Edmond Genest, Stephanie Zimbalist.  Photo by Jayson Byrd

Ancestral Voices (Company B) – James Naughton, Joanne Woodward, Paul Rudd, Paul Newman, Swoosie Kurtz.  Photo by Jayson Byrd

The Golden Age - Seated (l-r)  Kathleen McNenny, Frances Sternhagen, Richard Thomas. Standing (l-r) Anne Keefe, curator, John Tillinger, director, Kim Furano, stage directions.  Photo by Dave Matlow

The Dining Room - Clockwise, from left:   Keira Naughton, Charles Socarides, Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Jake Robards, and Jennifer Van Dyck.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

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