Dallas directs UD play— A collaborative process of discovery
- Published: February 9, 2012
When actor, playwright and director Tony Dallas reads a play that he likes very much, the play resonates and stays with him for weeks or months afterward. That’s what happened when he read Eleemosynary, a 1985 work by Lee Blessing.
“Sometimes I read a play, then re-read it, and it keeps growing on me,” he said in a recent interview.
Now Dallas is especially pleased to be directing Eleemosynary for the University of Dayton theater department. The production, which features Yellow Springs actor Marcia Nowik in a leading role, will be presented Feb. 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Boll Theater in the school’s Kennedy Union. Tickets are $10, and $7 for students.
The one-act play focuses on three generations of strong, intelligent women, each one shaped and in some cases limited by the time in which she came of age. The matriarch, Dorothea, is a willful eccentric, while her brilliant daughter, Artemis, is a scientist estranged from both her mother and her daughter. The daughter, Echo, is a champion speller (eleemosynary is a spelling word that means “related to charity”) who has been raised by Dorothea, and is now trying to bring her mother and grandmother together after years of estrangement.
Described by the Philadelphia City Paper as “elegant, witty, and carefully wrought,” and by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch as “funny, perceptive and eloquently written,” the play addresses the attempts by each woman to come to terms with the complex relationships between them, along with the gifts and challenges that they pass from one generation to another.
“I wish every mother could take her daughter to see it,” said Nowik, who plays Dorothea. However, while Eleemosynary is a play about women, “I don’t think it’s only a woman’s play. I think it’s bigger than that.”
The play, which includes lines such as, “Don’t ever have a daughter. She won’t like you,” and “We each try to be what the next generation needs, but we never come close,” addresses difficult and painful issues between mothers and daughters. But it’s also a play with “a big heart, with an urge toward mending, toward reconciliation,” according to Dallas.
Part of the play’s humanity can be credited to the directing, according to Nowik, who said that Dallas “finds the depth and humanity” of the play,” and “never takes the easy way out.”
And to Dallas, the play’s strength is linked to the performance by Nowik, who he invited to play Dorothea.
“Marsha has ripened into such a deep and resonant actor with a wonderful internal life,” Dallas said, describing that interior life as “transparent and deeply rooted.”
The two have worked together before, with Dallas directing Nowik in two Antioch College Shakespeare productions, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest, in which Nowik played the leading role. As well as appreciating Nowik’s performance in Eleemosynary, Dallas is delighted with her influence on the other cast members.
“When you have a very good actor, it brings everyone else up,” he said.
Eleemosynary is Dallas’ 12th production with UD, and he directs a play about once a year at the school. He has developed a rapport with Darrell Anderson, the head of the theater department and a set designer, he said, seeing Anderson as someone who has taught him “the importance of the set and how the actors move on the space. That’s been one of the most fortunate relationships I’ve had in theater.”
Perhaps the most influential relationship was that Dallas had with his father, Meredith Dallas, an actor, director and Antioch College theater faculty member who was a driving force behind the college’s annual Shakespeare festival during the early 1960s. Dallas remembers as a boy watching his father “deeply enjoying the process” of directing, and he feels that enjoyment as well.
Theater is “a venue for deep exploration,” to Tony Dallas, and “as a director, there is deep joy in the journey. You don’t have to be aiming at perfection.”
Part of the journey’s excitement is watching a play come alive, Dallas said, a process he also links to his father’s influence. Meredith, like his son, aimed to collaborate with his actors to discover their characters, rather than simply giving them instructions on how to play a part.
“For me, the most exciting part of working with actors is the place of discovery,” Tony Dallas says, “when suddenly you see leaps happen, when the show takes on life and energy.” He appreciates that Nowik, too, seems to thrive with the collaborative method, and that she has produced a rich portrait of a character who can be played as one-dimensional.
“It’s easy to make her a monster,” she said of her character. “But for me as an actress, the challenge is to find moments where you can see the humanity of Dorothea, and of most mothers.”
Living in the Midwest can be limiting to someone who works in the theater, Nowik and Dallas agree. For a director, there’s less opportunity for experimentation, according to Dallas, because plays produced tend to reflect what’s popular on Broadway. And it’s more difficult to see a wide variety of plays.
But there can also be advantages. For instance, professional actors often have preconceived notions of how a character should be played, and therefore are less open to collaboration.
“It’s not always a richer experience working with professionals,” Nowik said. “The joy of working with nonprofessionals is you stay longer in the process of discovery.”
Nowik left the theater for several years, but she has recently come back, and last year was one of a local ensemble that put on Chekhov’s A Cherry Orchard to raise money to revive theater in the village. Both she and Dallas would like to see a thriving community theater in Yellow Springs, and hope that these efforts succeed.
Wherever they work, both Dallas and Nowik will continue to seek the process of “deep exploration,” joy and discovery that they find in the process of putting on a play.
“Being with people who engage in that way, it doesn’t matter where you are,” Nowik said. “We take the gifts and are grateful wherever they appear.”
For information about tickets to Eleemosynary, contact the UD box office at 229-2545.