Stage preview: The family's the thing in The Rep's 'The Country House'
September 3, 2015 12:00 AM
From left, David Cabot as Elliot Patterson, and Cary Anne Spear as Anna Patterson in rehearsal for The Rep's "The Country House."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Amplas has heard the comparisons of “The Country House,” the play he is directing for the Playhouse Rep, to Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” He gets the similarities, but when he looks at the page, what he sees is a story about family.
The serio-comic play by Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Dinner With Friends,” is being given its local premiere after its Broadway debut in September of last year. “The Country House” in New York starred Blythe Danner — who famously had starred in “The Seagull” in the 1970s — as the grieving matriarch of a theater family.
‘The Country House’
Where: The Rep at Rauh Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Preview today and runs Friday through Sept. 20. 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $25-$30 (pay-what-you-want at the door, beginning one hour before curtain, and subject to availability); www.pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.
“For me, I honestly tried to initially approach this without thinking of Chekhov at all,” the director said. “I continually try to look at it as, it’s a family play for me. It’s all familial themes. That’s what I’m trying to focus on. It happens to be a theater family. I’m really trying to focus on that family dealing with, No. 1, grief, the loss of a daughter, and their interpersonal relationships based upon that loss. Then, the new things that have to happen — we have to move on — and how difficult that is to do. So those are the ideas that I am trying to pay attention to here.”
Sitting inside the cafe at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, Mr. Amplas, 66, can certainly relate to being a member of a theatrical family.
He began his association in the building attending classes there as a 10-year-old. He is a Point Park University graduate who in 1982 began teaching acting and directing there, but before instructing people in his craft, the Pittsburgh native became a favorite actor for horror king George Romero. In 1976, he was cast in the title role of the vampire cult classic “Martin,” which to this day has a 96 percent critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Mr. Amplas spent three years in the Army before settling in at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he became a co-founder and associate artistic director of The Rep, Point Park’s professional theater company.
The cast of “The Country House” is a reunion of sorts, with relationships forged at the university.
“I have fortunately worked with most of the people, and some of them were at one time or another a student of mine. We have so many people that came out of our program working today,” he said.
David Cabot and Maggie Carr are former students of his, and he has worked with Cary Anne Spear, who stars as Anna Patterson, a Broadway grand dame-turned-summer stock star who is hosting family and friends at her estate.
“I brought in another of our former students, Maria O’Brien, who is just a remarkable actor,” Mr. Amplas says as he lists his cast. “Paul Reynolds came from us as well, so it is a lot of people I have history with, and that’s important. And out of that, then, comes a greater opportunity to create this family atmosphere. We have been smooth sailing from the beginning.”
The director is working with his cast to mine the wit and intelligence in the play by Mr. Margulies. In that respect, one comparison he would like to see made between his production and Chekov’s play has its roots in something the late great Russian playwright has said about his works.
“Where it might be seen as akin to Chekhov, he always said, ‘I wrote comedies, folks.’ There have been so many productions of Chekhov that have been downers, and lose the lightness of the circumstances and the situations and the people. So I try to remind my cast and myself, comedy doesn’t mean rolling in the aisles. ... It has the same sense that a serious drama has, in that it has a serious subject. The subject is simply looked at in a lighter vein. So if we are able to provoke some thoughtful laughter, I’ll be happy.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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