Every actor of distinction has his King Lear, a marathon classic role that he aspires to when life and career experience tell him it's time.
For Tom Atkins, the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is his Lear.
"I'm tickled to be able to do it," Mr. Atkins said during a lunch break at the O'Reilly Theater, where he has been rehearsing the play for Pittsburgh Public Theater. "A lot of people ask, because I'm an older actor, when are we going to see your King Lear? I've never really had any interest in doing Lear; I leave that to Mark Rylance, who's the best Shakespearean actor alive today. But I've always wanted to do this role, and Ted was amenable."
The Pittsburgh-based actor with an impressive list of Hollywood credits and Ted Pappas, the Public's producing artistic director, can now cross collaborating on "Our Town" off their bucket lists.
A secondhand book proved to be the nudge the men needed to explore the classic about life, love and death in a fictional New Hampshire town, a play that even today is a rule-breaker of the first order.
"Every few years Tom and I work on a major work of art," said Mr. Pappas, who is directing a cast of two dozen. "And this was the one he reminded me of and I jumped on to open our Masterpiece Season. This was the year for it."
When "Our Town" came on the scene in 1938, it was unlike anything theatergoers had seen. The stage is to be stripped bare of scenery, with props pantomimed by actors and a narrator who addresses the audience directly, informing us immediately that we are about to see a play, then when to break for intermission (there are two) and when to be back.
"He's the guide. He's usher and Playbill and the Stage Manager and actor; he does everything. And then he has to jump into a scene and play other characters," Mr. Pappas explained.
With all that, only one thing had so far flummoxed the leading man as they entered rehearsal for the third act.
"The hardest scene for me to do in the play is to make a strawberry ice cream soda," said Mr. Atkins, his voice reverberating in the O'Reilly conference room. In the iconic scene, he is helping along the romance between George and Emily at an early 20th-century soda shop.
"We have to believe it," the director interjected.
"When you see it you'll go, 'Oooh, I want that,' " the actor promised.
The hardbound book that brought the Pulitzer Prize-winning play from burner to main event is "Our Town: A Play in Three Acts" (HarperCollins, 2003), which features insights from Wilder. The foreword by playwright Donald Marguilies tells readers, "You are holding in your hands a great American play. Possibly the great American play," a belief shared by the two men now continuing its lineage of productions.
It was one such production in the late 1970s that first brought the play to Mr. Atkins' attention.
"I saw Richard Dysart do it; he's a good old friend of mine. It was in Topanga Canyon in California at Will Geer's [Theatricum Botanicum] in the wild there, in the trees. Dick was the Stage Manager, and I thought, 'Some day I'd like to do that.' I remember sitting there watching it next to Johnny Lithgow. It wasn't too long after we had gone out there from New York. Yeah, that was it."
When the play opened on Broadway in 1938, Frank Craven was the Stage Manager, and he reprised his role on the big screen in 1940. A 2002 revival with Paul Newman in the role was taped for PBS, after Henry Fonda played a short run on Broadway in 1969 and Spalding Gray played the part in the 1980s.
Closer to home, "Our Town" moves forward a successful collaboration that began when Mr. Atkins appeared in the first play Mr. Pappas directed at the Public as its artistic director, "You Can't Take It With You," and they teamed for the company's most successful show, the tour de force "The Chief."
The one-man bioplay about Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. has transferred to DVD and is one reason the company finished in the black for its 10th straight year, Mr. Pappas pointed out with pride. Mr. Atkins will reprise that role Jan. 2-4 for six performances, but for now, it's all "Our Town" all the time.
The production will go by the Wilder script that calls for five children among the large cast, which is composed of actors who all have Pittsburgh ties. Grover's Corners' George Gibb, Patrick Cannon, lives in New York now, but he is a third-generation Pittsburgher and graduate of West Allegheny High School. In bios prepared by the actors to show their roots in "our town," Mr. Cannon notes with pride that his uncle and grandfather were longtime City of Pittsburgh policemen. Erin Lindsey Krom, who play's George's love, Emily, is a Keystone Oaks High and Point Park alum.
As for Duquesne University grad Atkins, "I was born on the great North Side," his bio reads.
Grover's Corners was a town created by Wilder while he was writing in Peterborough, N.H., according to the book that sparked this production.
The book will even make an appearance in the play -- the Stage Manager will pull it from his pocket when the townsfolk of Grover's Corners are asked for contributions to a time capsule being placed in the foundation of a new bank. In the script, contents include a Bible, a copy of the Constitution and a book of plays by Shakespeare.
Mr. Atkins even gets "a Lear moment" in "Our Town," which he explained is "the cracking thunder ... there's a big rainstorm. I describe it afterward, 'The rain looked like curtains being blown along.' "
Mr. Pappas said one of his favorite moments is the opening, when Mr. Atkins as the Stage Manager walks the audience through the geography of Grover's Corners and its inhabitants.
"It's a great lesson in economy and specificity. I can't wait for the play to start in rehearsal so I can see Tom tell me where we're hitching the horses. It's crazy good," the director said.
"I love doing that opening, too," Mr. Atkins added. "We were just talking about when the Tolkien trilogy came out and I was at Long Wharf [Theatre in New Haven, Conn.]. We would imagine what the orcs looked like and the Ents, and try to draw them, because there weren't any drawings [of them] in the books. It always amazed me the variation of people's imaginations. The audience will have to imagine what I'm describing. ... Hopefully, they'll just surrender to the play."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 25, 2013 4:00 AM