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When Richard Met Alice

Richard Thomas discusses his role in Tiny Alice and the intracacies of Edward Albee's work.

By New York City
Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas
When playwright Edward Albee floated the idea for a revival of his 1964 metaphysical comedy thriller Tiny Alice at Connecticut's Hartford Stage Company, he suggested Richard Thomas for the role of anguished protagonist Julian. Re-reading the play for the first time since he was teenager, Thomas reports that he immediately fell in love with the part, and he agreed to take on the role with one stipulation: He wanted Mark Lamos--at the time, outgoing artistic director at Hartford Stage--to direct the production.

Thomas will no doubt be perpetually associated with his portrayal of John-Boy Walton in the popular '70s television series The Waltons, but he can also claim a place in the front ranks of this country's classical stage actors; some of the challenging roles in which he has distinguished himself are the leads in the Hartford Stage productions of Richard III, Hamlet, and Peer Gynt. All three productions were directed by Lamos. No surprise, then, that Thomas sought a similar artistic collaboration for the Albee play. "I said to Mark, 'With every succeeding production, we have done everything we can to destroy our careers together, so if I'm going to crawl out on that limb, you are coming with me!'" Thomas recalls. Lamos' production of Tiny Alice, which opened at Hartford in May 1998, proved a triumph for both actor and director. Now they have teamed again to present a new production of the play at Second Stage, based on the version they presented at Hartford.

Thomas says that Albee's distinctive voice, which was dominant in the theater when he was growing up in New York, had a significant influence on him. "When I was learning to be an actor, that was the sound, that was the syntax I heard," he says. "A friend of mine in school used to read The Zoo Story all the time and talk about it. I devoured all the plays; I used to read them on the subway." When he was 15, the young actor was cast in the 1966 Broadway production of Albee's adaptation of Giles Cooper's Everything in the Garden. Three decades later, Thomas is relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth into a deeply challenging Albee creation.

The role of Julian in Albee's teasingly ambiguous morality play is, as The New York Times claimed, one which Thomas was "born to play." Julian is a lay brother whose crisis of faith has prevented from him from taking the vows of priesthood. He is caught up in a mysterious web spun by the other characters in the play, known to us simply as Cardinal, Lawyer, Butler and Miss Alice. According to Thomas, "The thing about Julian is that he is an innocent but, underneath there are huge raging issues, passions, feelings and conflicts."

Now 49, the former John-Boy has retained a youthful appearance. It's a quality that serves him well in parts that, like Julian and Peer Gynt, call for a certain guilelessness combined with maturity. (Albee had apparently seen Thomas in Peer Gynt prior to suggesting the actor for Alice). In addition, Thomas' natural charm as an actor helps carry an audience along as Julian is propelled toward his destiny, deeper into the abstraction Albee calls Alice. Needless to say, charm and youthful demeanor alone won't get an actor through Albee's complex text. Even John Gielgud, who played the role in the original Broadway production, was reportedly baffled by Julian's dying speech, a stream-of-consciousness monologue. The writing demands all the technical skills of a trained classical actor.

"I think hearing the music in Albee's writing is very important," says Thomas. "That is why one has to read the punctuation like a music score." An Albee text on the page, the actor explains, is frequently broken up with ellipses: "I call them three-dot bandits," he laughs.

The elisions, along with strange repetitions and self-interruptions, are hallmarks of the playwright's work. "These things to me are exquisite," Thomas enthuses. "They carry in them both a movement towards a kind of naturalism--people interrupting themselves and qualifying their own statements--and a high formalism, a sort of incantatory quality. When you are learning the text and the syntax, the rhythm and meter of the lines get somehow stretched out, and it seems very tortured and unrealistic. But, as you begin to play, it collapses into realistic speech. The musical quality of the play lifts off even as you are playing the realism of the language.

"All of Edward's plays are about language," Thomas continues. "The chimes, rhymes, repetitions, and cadences serve to elevate the piece as a language play." Indeed, Albee's characters take great delight in words and word play, which in turn infects the actors and the audience. "You can savor [the language] because the characters are savoring it," Thomas comments. "They have a self-awareness, a desire to say exactly what they are feeling and meaning. At the same time, the words they choose reveal a love and relish of language. I feel that words are symbolic actions in these plays. As such, each word is like a movement on stage: a physical action, specifically directed, which has a specific result and intention."

Verbal pyrotechnics notwithstanding, Thomas is convinced that Albee's work is more than merely cerebral. "We live in the head and we live in the heart simultaneously, and I think Edward's plays do the same thing," he says. "In the role of Julian, there is always a very strong emotional line. It's one of my jobs as an actor in that part to let the audience in on the emotional story of the play, so that they don't just get hung up in the ideas." Giving an example, the actor notes that the play touches on issues of abandonment--an emotional undercurrent that runs deep in most of Albee's work. Still, unfolding with a boldly melodramatic flair, Tiny Alice is unmistakably the work of the young playwright. Thomas reports how Albee himself made the comment "raging excess" after watching a run-through of one of the acts. "It has that wonderful, youthful quality, and you have to fully embrace it and not be embarrassed by it," says the actor.

When Tiny Alice premiered 36 years ago, many people resisted the play, deeming it too enigmatic or downright obscure. Thomas says one of the big surprises in performing the play at Hartford two years ago was discovering how entertaining it was for the audience. For example, the scintillating opening scene between Cardinal and Lawyer is worthy of Oscar Wilde, even as it hints at the disquieting events to come. "Maybe, in the ensuing years, the audience's defenses against sexual and religious issues have lowered to the point where they are able to take the ride and receive the mystification of the play," offers Thomas. "I understand how Edward tends not to want his plays to be overinterpreted. The heart must get it as it is. The delivery system for the ambiguities is in the naturalism."

Thomas points out that there is a deliberate moral and intellectual indeterminancy about Tiny Alice: "It creates in the viewer a struggle towards meaning that mirrors the struggle we all have in our lives. If we accept that meaning is something that we create for ourselves, then Edward's plays make you search for--and make your own--meaning. I think one of the themes that works through all his plays is that we are alive and we must embrace the world. The unlived life is the great tragedy in his plays. It's painful and entertaining at the same time. And a little sadistic, sometimes."


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