Tag Archives: Victor Sayegh

Paige Johnston Thomas (1968-2020)

Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.

Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.

It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.IMG_7076

The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.

Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.

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Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?

Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.

Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?

Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.

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But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.

Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?

Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.

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QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?

Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.

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QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?

Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.

Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?

Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).

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QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?

Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.

In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?

Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.

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How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?

Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.

Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.

Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

 

“The Philadelphia Story” Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.

Soot of Sodom Chases the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.

But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.

We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.

Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.

One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.

As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.

It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.

With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.

Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.

Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.

Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.

Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.

And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.

With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.

Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.

Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.

Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.

That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.