Gavin’s Underground

Pygmalion Theatre Company: Hellman v. McCarthy‏

Director and cast talk about their new play opening Feb. 27

Posted By Gavin Sheehan | City Weekly

Pygmalion Theatre Company continue their 2014-15 season with an iconic play featuring two iconic women. Hellman v. McCarthy features the long feud between authors Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, which started in the 1930s and ended in the mid-’80s with the death of Hellman in the middle of a lawsuit between the two. The play, written by Brian Richard Mori, takes a long look into the bitter rivalry from a third-party perspective, showing the highlights and parallels of their lives as they feuded to the grave. Today we chat with director Lane Richins, as well as the two lead actresses Barb Gandy and Reb Fleming, about the play and their thoughts being bringing it to life. (All pictures courtesy of PGY.)

Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Lane: My name is Lane Richins. I am the director of the regional premiere of Hellman v. McCarthy. I am on the board of Pygmalion Theatre Company and Silver Summit Theatre Company and have been involved with the Salt Lake theatre scene for 15 years. I’ve directed and acted for several local companies, including Pygmalion, SLAC, The Grand, Plan B, Pinnacle Acting Company, and many others.

Barb: I’m Barb Gandy. I’ve lived in SLC longer than I lived in Denver where I grew up. Been doing theatre things here since the early 1980s. Been closely associated with Pygmalion Productions since 2002. Wow, time flies!

Reb: Theatre is and has always been my passion. Through the art of story, theatre offers an audience the opportunity to see a piece of themselves through the lives and actions of those on stage. Theatre is risky business. There are no over’s no second takes. What you see is what you get and therein is the magic. The audience invests a sense of trust in the actors, director, the technicians night after night, performance after performance, bring something carefully crafted and rehearsed yet ever new to the stage. I was captivated by that magic as a child and by age ten was writing, casting, directing and acting in my own productions, and, much to the chagrin of my mother, charging the neighbors a healthy sum to see the work. Not much has changed over the years, except the price of the tickets! I have a BA in Theatre Arts and have taught Acting and Voice and Speech for the Actor. Along with Miss Nancy Roth, I am a founding member of PYGmalion Theatre Company and the former Artistic Director of the company. It was my privilege during my years with PYG to both act and direct for the company (Gin GameHouse of Blue LeavesLiving OutSex Habits of American WomenKnowing CairoSordid LivesBlithe SpiritBad SeedCakewalk).

Gavin: What have all of you been up to in theatre over the past year?

Barb: Last spring I was in Pygmalion’s production of Motherhood Out Loud. In the summer and fall, did radio theatre with the Salt City Radio Players — we did The Martian Chronicles with culminating performances at the Clark Planetarium, and it was a blast!

Reb: Since my retirement from PYG, I have been living in Moab, far from any theatre activity but surrounded by the sacred rocks of the glorious desert. When Lane Richins contacted me with the offer to play Lillian inHellman v McCarthy it took all of three minutes contemplation to say “yes.” Okay, I exaggerate, I did read the script first, Initially I was hesitant because I thought the subjects, Hellman and McCarthy might be too dated for many/any people younger than I remember, least of all care about. However, as I considered the crafting of the story, and I believe Mr. Mori does this with humor and great political insight, I found the piece to be relevant and of particular interest for today’s audience. McCarthy accuses Hellman of being a liar but Hellman claims what she has written to be true if not… um… actually factual. How much of what we “think” we remember is actually “true?” (Brian Williams, John Kerry). Where does polite public conversation cross the line of malice and libel? Should Cavett and his production company have censored/edited Miss McCarthy’s words? (Sony Pictures/The Interview). The more I read, the more I studied, the more I was convinced that the piece would cause an audience to pause, to consider, to wonder, even if they didn’t not know or appreciate the great literary contributions of these two extraordinary women. I wish I could dazzle you with how hard this role was for me to understand. I would be lying. Lillian Hellman was known for her angers They were her essence. She was passionate, hot-tempered, outspoken, politically active. I have spent most of my life hot-tempered, outspoken, politically active. The delicious part of playing Hellman now is that I played Hellman years ago in Cakewalk… when both Hellman and I were much younger! Age changes one’s point of view. Physical limitations alter one’s resiliency and ability to act and react. She was lonely, and loneliness, like pain, changes everything.

Lane: In the past year my main focus has been on Salt City Radio Players. I am the founder and Co-Artistic Director. It’s a live radio theatre company that utilizes local commercials and newsreels. Most recently, we had a sold-out run of The Martian Chronicles and Mars is Heaven, by Ray Bradbury, at Clark Planetarium. I also acted in Pygmalion’s production of Women of Lockerbie, just about a year ago.

Gavin: Lane, when did you first learn about Hellman v. McCarthy and what did you think about it?

Lane: A friend of Pygmalion’s, Larry West, brought the script to our attention, and I immediately fell in love with the script. Hellman v. McCarthy is essentially about the power of words. How do we use them? How are they perceived? When are you saying one thing and meaning something else? What is our responsibility for the words we use? And who decides that? What happens when the same words mean completely different things to different people? And how does the way we use words define who we are as people? When does our name become the most important word to hold on to, to fight for? These are universal questions. We all know the feeling of being held accountable for what we say, and, in cases, how we say it. And the words that comprise your name may be the most important because, at the end of the day, your name is all you get to take with you. There’s also an electricity to the play; a kinetic energy to what’s being said and how it’s being said. Hellman and McCarthy are not your usual players. They are both highly intelligent, highly capable, and highly opinionated women. This battle of words between them is not unlike a heavyweight boxing match, only they are brawling with intellectual muscle, and what comes from their brains, and out their mouths, is as powerful as a Mike Tyson uppercut. The playwright, Brian Richard Mori, has done a superb job of infusing an almost tangible physical energy to this show, one that moves and changes and ducks and bobs and weaves. All through the use of words.

Gavin: What has it been like for you working with the cast and crew to put it together?

Lane: The cast is a dream. Reb Fleming plays Lillian Hellman, and it isn’t the first time. Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to act with Reb Fleming in Cakewalk, also for Pygmalion, wherein Reb played Lillian to my Cuff, her much younger lover. So to get to revisit Ms. Hellman with Reb, this time as a director, has just been a ball. And where Cakewalk was more sentimental in its approach, Hellman v. McCarthy gives Reb a chance to approach Lillian from a much different place, a darker place, a more sinister place, and it’s a joy to watch. Barb Gandy is her formidable opponent Mary McCarthy, and she delivers, blow by intellectual blow. To be a part of any production with these two actresses is an honor, and watching them go at each other is a true delight. I’m very fortunate. Not to be forgotten is Ogden’s Allen Smith, and his spot on interpretation of Dick Cavett. It’s difficult playing a real person, especially one that’s still alive, and Allen does it with aplomb. In fact, he’s the only actor to ever play this part besides Dick Cavett himself. Rounding out the cast are some of my personal local favorites, William Richardson as Hellman’s nurse Ryan Hobbs, Jeremy Chase as McCarthy’s lawyer Burt Fielding, and Jeffrey Owen and Hellman’s lawyer Lester Marshall. It’s a professional group…and a fun one. This may be the best time I’ve had in the theatre. Putting the polish on the show are our Stage Manager, Jennie Pett, our set designer, Thomas George, our lighting designer Jesse Portillo, and our sound designer Troy Klee. It’s a joy to watch these amazing artists at the top of their game.

Gavin: Barb and Reb, what were your first impressions of the play?

Barb: For me, it was—can the strength of these two characters and the story of a lawsuit be interesting enough in live-action to pull in the audience. But, since we’ve been in rehearsal, and had some folks watch and give notes, we found to our delight the play is snappy, funny and interesting.

Reb: I appreciate the structure of Mr. Mori’s play because I believe rather than creating a piece that revolves only around Hellman and McCarthy, each woman’s association with her attorney, and each woman’s association with Cavett,, reveals relationship between them all that thus create an ensemble piece of theatre.

Gavin: What was your experience like auditioning for it and getting these roles?

Barb: Lane asked me to take on the role of Mary McCarthy. I was so surprised and thrilled when he asked. Playing a historical figure has its special challenges—fortunately, there are lots of available resources to research (and we have!).

Gavin: Considering the dynamics of each individual, how was it for each of you getting to know your character?

Barb: So, so interesting. I had a vague idea of McCarthy from her book, The Group, which I read some years ago. Since cast, I read all of her memoirs, the novel referenced in the play (Cannibals and Missionaries), an excellent biography, and a collection of letters she wrote to Hannah Arendt. Lane also got copies of McCarthy’s, Hellman’s and Cavett’s interrogatories which, believe it or not, are fascinating reading.

Gavin: What was the experience like for you putting your own personality and other traits together to bring them to life?

Barb: It’s a different challenge because she’s a historical figure. I know some things about her physically that I’m bringing to the character, but mostly I’m relying on her incredible and daunting capacity with language, her quest for Truth at all costs, her strong political bent, that she was the smartest girl in the room and needed to be the center of attention.

Gavin: Considering much of the play works off the two of you interacting, how has it been playing off each other and being able to work with this kind of dynamic?

Barb: I love Reb Fleming and trust her completely. It’s a joy!!

Reb: Lillian and Mary only have one scene during the play where they meet face-to-face, and that encounter for me is delicious as I have the opportunity to square off with the brilliant actress Barb Gandy as Mary McCarthy. The first time I saw Barb Gandy audition for a role, years ago, I was stunned by what a fearless actor she is. She is willing to do just about anything on stage to bring her character to life. Playing opposite her McCarthy is thrilling.

Gavin: What’s it been like working with the rest of the cast and making the play as a whole?

Reb: I find Jeremy Chase utterly charming on stage and have to remind myself he is opposing counsel when we are opposite one another in depositions. Jeffrey Owen, as Lester Marshall, Hellman’s attorney, is like sparing with my own attorney who I pay way too much money and expect way too much in return. Allen Smith embodies that boyish charm and intellect and subtle arrogance that is and always was uh, uh, uh, Cavett! The delicacy of this entire piece for me, for Hellman, is revealed through her engaging relationship with her nurse, Ryan, as played by the winsome William Richardson. Will, young and oh so capable, brings to each scene a sense of presence that stabilizes the stage. There is a surety about his presence that surpasses mere performance and enhances and enables his fellow actors.

Barb: Wonderful. Everyone is smart, dedicated, and easy to work with.

Gavin: Knowing the history of these two icons, how has it been bringing this story to the Pygmalion stage?

Barb: Beyond nailing our mission statement (experiences of women), it is amazingly timely—let’s just take the recent Brian Williams revelations, for example. When does memory betray reality? When or should free speech be curbed?

Reb: Hellman and McCarthy deserve to be remembered. They were strong, passionate, intellectuals who helped shape a period of American political and literary history that is due note, regard and respect. I am proud of PYGmalion for bringing them on stage and before the public’s eye.