Combine the power of the written word with the immediacy of an actor’s visceral, live interpretation, and the result is a performance that literally brings a story to life. The experience, of last Sunday’s WordTheatre production “Stories of Home” was thrilling.
“You get a lot more than saying lines, you get to tell the whole story,” said Actor Tess Harper (“No Country for Old Men,” “Breaking Bad”), summing up why actors become hooked on volunteering for this singular stage experience that combines literary and performing arts. She read Ron Carlson’s “On the USS Fortitude.”
The production, a fundraiser for the Friendship Shelter, involved world-class actors reading some of the best short stories of the English language. “We wanted something that could add value to the arts scene in Laguna Beach,” said the shelter’s executive director Dawn Price.
Randy Kraft, former Friendship Shelter director of development, made a coup in enlisting WordTheatre’s artistic director Cedering Fox to produce the event, as Fox has access to a great group of actors whom she cannily pairs with meticulously selected stories. Yet it was Kraft who lured in Richard Burgi (“Desperate Housewives,” “Nip/Tuck,” “In Her Shoes”). Burgi’s sons and their mother are Laguna Beach residents who have volunteered to serve dinner for Friendship Shelter residents. Though he admitted being more comfortable with memorized lines, Burgi read impeccably in his first production with WordTheatre, tenderly conveying the alternating compassion and angst of a couple’s life in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly.”
The actors all volunteered their talent for the cause, and aside from what Price termed a “very modest production fee” paid to WordTheatre, all proceeds benefited Friendship Shelter. Tickets cost $65, or $125 for the show and a brunch at Nirvana Grille, attended by the actors. WordTheatre, a nonprofit, has been staging performances in Los Angeles, New York and London since 2003 (www.wordtheatre.com), but this was its Orange County debut.
Justin Chambers, revered for his role as Alex on television’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” said he prefers reading from a text to memorizing lines as it, “gives you more room to interpret.” Chambers’ interpretation of “Loser” by Aimee Bender, about an orphan boy with a gift for finding lost objects, was heartfelt and truly evoked the emptiness of a young man who found “things” but would never find the parents he lost in a tragic accident.
Mark Miller, a former stage actor and director who now serves as assistant executive director at Friendship Shelter breathed life and feeling into E. B. White’s “Home Song,” aptly chosen as the first piece.
Other performers included Gary Dourdan (“CSI”) who, despite having just broken his ankle, valiantly showed up on crutches and performed “Joyas Voladoras,” by Brian Doyle; Baadja-Lyne Odums (“The Shield”), who mesmerized the audience with her interpretation of “Thank You, Ma’am,” by Langston Hughes; the lovely young actress Rachel Boston (“500 Days of Summer”), who read “Isabelle’s House,” by Lou Ann Walker, about generations of women brought together by a handed down doll house; and Brian J. White, an actor, writer and former football player with the New England Patriots, who gave an inspired performance of “Crazy Glue” by Edgar Keret, the story of a disillusioned wife who, understanding that her marriage is metaphorically becoming unglued, decides to literally Superglue her home – and husband – back together.
White, who co-founded Phunk Phenomenon Urban Dance Theater Company with the mission of using dance as a catalyst for youth outreach, said he believes in the importance of “using words to impact people and make a difference.”
John Heard (“Home Alone,” “Beaches,” “CSI Miami”) wrapped up the event in a stellar finale. He went to bat, was pitched a story with one hell of a spin on it – “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” by O’Henry – and knocked it out of the park. The audience was spellbound.
As Tess Harper said, “People like being read to…it’s part of the old storytelling tradition.”
Roundtrip limo service from Los Angeles was donated for the actors by Greg Ford, vice president of operations for Resolute Transportation, Inc., and, a proud Friendship Shelter alumnus.
Drug abuse landed Ford in federal prison for eight-and-a-half-years. When he got out, unprepared and unable to adjust to society, he went back to drugs, his downward spiral slowing only when his probation officer told him about the Friendship Shelter.
“It saved my life,” Ford said simply. “I was able to invest in myself. They showed me how to do the things I needed to do.” He was delighted when the call came asking if he could help by transporting the actors for the “Stories of Home” fundraiser. “My life today is awesome because I’m staying clean and giving back,” he said with palpable emotion.