I’m in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, for a production of my one-man play “Cedars.” It is being performed by that estimable actor, James Naughton. I heard his voice while writing it, sent the first draft to him as soon as I’d completed it, and am overjoyed that he has agreed to do it. We’ve had several readings in a variety of locales over the last couple of years, but this is our first real production, in this beautiful location. The headquarters of the Berkshire Theater Festival are located i n Stockbridge, but in fact the festival “campus” is spread over a number of towns in the vicinity. Everything is a little farther away from everything else than you think it’s going to be. My notion of walking from place to place proved chimerical.
Today was the third day of rehearsals, but the second I’ve been present for (I arrived too late on the 30th to attend the first day). The play is being directed by Jim’s daughter, Keira Naughton. It’s fascinating to watch them work together. All the usual parent-child dynamics are…well, not exactly skewed, but shuffled. When they’re working on scenes, Keira is definitely the boss; she asks him to try various approaches, she tells him when something isn’t working, she calls him to order like a grade school teacher trying to control an unruly child. And he can be unruly; especially toward the end of the day, after several hours of rehearsal, when he is either tired or bored, he will break into one of his dead-on impressions (today featured an especially good Ed Sullivan, although the Walter Brennan wasn’t chopped liver either), or a series of funny walks that would put John Cleese to shame. Keira smiles through these antics, and sometimes laughs, but clearly wants to get back to business, and sometimes speaks sharply to him. In this working environment, her only overt concession to their relationship is to address him as “Dad.”
In every other aspect of their interactions, however, he plays the role of father. The house they are staying in — she along with her husband and toddler — is clearly Jim’s house. Their social life tends to follow his preferences (allowing for the demands of Charlie, Keira’s child, with whom Jim is in any case clearly besotted).
He is such an extraordinary actor, with such an impeccable technique, that it’s an education in the art of acting simply to watch him. He will take one of Keira’s notes and transform his performance in accordance with her direction, but will completely own it, finding original and striking ways of achieving her instructions. Today, for example, he initially did one very poignant scene in a slightly pathetic manner. It was very effective, but then Keira had an interesting note. She told Jim that he was missing a lot of the comedy in the scene. She suggested that Jim play the scene for its comedy, but in such a way that we can see his character is using humor to keep tragedy at bay. Jim nodded, and immediately proceeded to play the scene hilariously, repeatedly provoking gales of laughter in Keira and me. But it was as heartbreaking as it was funny. A virtuoso turn, performed without preparation, and, one might almost say, without a net.
I feel so lucky. Writers dream of interpreters this inspired.
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