Stage preview: City's 'Charles Ives Take Me Home' pits musical father against athletic daughter


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Actress and playwright Jessica Dickey was playing basketball with the boys at age 10, at the same time she was taking music lessons and heading in a theatrical direction. That the two went together was the natural order of things in her life, unlike the attitude of the violin-playing father and his daughter the coach in "Charles Ives Take Me Home."

The discord in their relationship finds a mediator in American composer Ives, a pioneer of modernist music who died in 1954.

"Charles Ives Take Me Home"
Where: City Theatre’s Hamburg Studio Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
When: Preview 8 tonight. Regular run Friday through Nov. 27: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $35 to $55; 412-431-CITY (2489) or citytheatrecompany.org (check online for discount and rush guidelines).
 
 

Ms. Dickey brought her one-woman show "The Amish Project" to City Theatre in 2011 and returns as writer only of "Charles Ives Take Me Home," which gets its second production after debuting at New York's Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in June. Tressa Glover, producing artistic director of Pittsburgh's No Name Players, portrays the basketball-playing Coach Laura Starr, a character with roots in the author's life.

"No one would ever know it, but I was a total jock growing up. My dad was a gym teacher," Ms. Dickey said. "I kept it up, but I always knew my life was going to be in the theater. For me, sports is so much a part of theater -- theater is a team sport."

Her athletic father suffered a sudden heart attack a while back, and that informed the themes of mortality and reckoning that pervade the play with music. Her father has since recovered, but she can describe the moment she got the call in great detail, walking on her street in Brooklyn, where the trees created "this cave shape to the ceiling of the world."

"My entire life, he has always run 6 or 8 miles a day. I remember he had to stay home with me once, and I was in shreds that he was missing his run because I was sick," Ms. Dickey said. "When he had a heart attack, it was just a shock. ... So much in this play is of my heart; it's real."

Where "Charles Ives" takes a detour from reality is orchestra violinist John Starr's conjuring of Ives, a long-ago classmate at Juilliard whose music he admires. Among the ways it detours from autobiography is the conflict between father and daughter. Laura Starr's dedication to sports seems as wrong to her father, John, as devoting his life to music was antithetical to his athletic father.

Ms. Glover was up to the challenge of looking like a natural while handling a basketball and delivering a pep talk, while finding a man who can play the violin and act the part of John Starr presented another challenge. Drew McVety, a veteran Broadway performer and musician, originated the role in New York and reprises it for City.

It never occurred to Ms. Dickey that creating a role that required an actor to also be an accomplished musician might be a problem.

"What I have noticed as I've talked to people who have considered doing the play, even Rattlestick and City ... they worry about different things. David [Van Asselt, artistic director] at Rattlestick was like, 'Oh, we're going to be able to find the violinist, but is there an actress who can really dribble?' And I was like, 'Well dude, I dribble. And this is New York City! We can find an actress who dribbles.' The most idiosyncratic needs for an actor, you can find. ... City found Tressa right in Pittsburgh, where you have a great casting pool."

The third party to the proceedings is the genial spirit of Charles Ives, played by busy local actor James FitzGerald. The composer who produced works known for their dissonance would seem to be an odd source of harmony for a parent and child who have become entrenched in their separate corners.

Ms. Dickey discovered Ives' work and his legacy when she took a course on modern music while studying acting at Boston University. He's not necessarily a household name, she admitted.

"His music was the first to do dissonance and these sort of strange melodies that don't seem to connect, or like the music seems to be moving in different parts that are not obviously of one piece. He really found the way for people like Philip Glass and Copland -- a lot of things that are happening in contemporary music, he was really the first. And because I was studying acting so intensely at the time, everything was coming through this lens of theater, and I found Ives' music so theatrical."

With the composer as an inspiration, Ms. Dickey determined to make the theatrical lyrical. Her script for "Charles Ives Take Me Home" instructs that the play should sound like a musical composition. From the earliest draft of the play, she had three characters but didn't know how they connected -- "I could hear these three people like three instruments," she said -- and the story formed as she continued to write and research.

She came upon the fact that Ives was a big sports fan, and that was the moment she knew he would be the person to bridge the gap between father and daughter.

With Ives acting as a sort of master of ceremonies, another inspiration was Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," with its omnipresent narrator and deconstruction of the tenets of theater.

"Whenever I would feel a little insecure, I would turn back to Wilder -- how did he do this and what was he doing and how do we accept that as an audience? We are so game as an audience for the imaginative exercise. I think that play was really a comfort to me."

As the play barrels toward the finish line and Laura grows into adulthood, the father-daughter resentment grows exponentially. Will these two ever find common ground? What would constitute a win in their relationship? Does Charles Ives have the answers?

To find out, you'll have to touch all the bases and head for "Home."


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