A Family, Played by a Family

by FTC Co-Founder/Advisory Company Member/For Peter Pan... cast member Sam D. White

When Forward Theater audiences come to see For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday by Sarah Ruhl, not only will they will see a play about a family, they will, in essence, see a play played by a family. I have known the majority of the cast individually for more than 30 years. I may be fudging it, but between our cast members we share almost two centuries worth of friendship, collaboration, and love. Probably more.

Let’s start from youngest to oldest, beginning with #5 (Wendy) played by Celia Klehr. Celia is THE “spouse.” In January, we'll notch 35 years together – undisputable proof she is a tough, resilient, and endlessly forgiving person.

Celia and I met doing a "one off" for the Madison Rep in 1983 (I will do my best to get dates and years correct, but I make absolutely no promises). It was Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner. Mr. Wilder is a national treasure, BTW! We were touring the show to senior residences during the holidays.

The official introduction was at the first rehearsal. I did not make the best first impression. At the time, she was the rising star at the Rep, the lead ingénue. I was a fresh, unknown recently paroled from the Edgewood College theater program. I had heard a lot about her, mainly from my good friends Mark Lazar and Jeff Knupp. In their eyes she was amazing, a star! They said she was very attractive and blond. At that time, I liked girls a little, so didn’t want to mess up the first meeting.

Even though we hadn’t met, we had been circling around the same theater community for a year or so. She worked the Edgewood Summer Theater, the summer before I started. Later, during my sophomore year at Edgewood, I saw a UW Theatre production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Celia played sweet Anne Page. Turns out, later that season, she came to Edgewood to see our attempt at Shaw’s Misalliance. I thought their Merry Wives was delightful. Celia did not share the same feeling in regards to our show. I remembered her, she does not recall my character.

So I was pretty excited about the encounter. When I saw her it was infatuation at first sight. She was kind of hot. Mark waved me over to meet her. Then I immediately noticed the ring on her finger! Nobody told me THAT! It was waking up to a bowl of oatmeal when pecan waffles and maple syrup were promised! WHAT?

It was also interesting that the ring was one of the first things I noticed about her. Whether that was something I instinctively searched for as a young man, or she, as a young woman, instinctively ensured it was seen. I was completely flustered. Then the first words out of my mouth were, "Hey, do you want to smell my jacket?"

Yup. True. Now, there is a good reason behind why I said that, but that does not take away the fact that I said it. She immediately thought I was an absolute idiot (this thought was later verified). Why not? I thought so, too.

Of course, we did eventually get together, despite the rocky start. However, there was a long trial period before she came to see that I, in fact, was a really cool, awesome idiot. However, the account of how our fates eventually collided during a rather wild and dramatic courtship is another, perhaps blog-worthy, story for the future.

We then worked on several shows together during the “early” years. The pivotal production in our relationship, however, was the Rep’s production of The Fifth of July by Lansford Wilson – 1984. It was during that show that we became romantically involved. My friend Mark and his eventual spouse, Elaine Armstrong (who were both in the show), would invite us over to their apartment for drinks after rehearsals. There may have been some purposeful matchmaking going on there, but I’m not sure. Celia eventually realized I was a good/nice guy and we’re still together 35 plus years and two daughters later.

And about that engagement ring, that will be good content for the next blog.

Our last show together was Madison Rep’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in the early 1990s. We played the dysfunctional upstairs neighbors, Steve and Eunice Hubble. They have a huge fight in one scene, and Eunice got to bash Steve on the head with a frying pan and kick him in the groin area in one scene. The groin kick was less than accurate a time or two. I am pretty sure that was accidental. One critic even singled out Celia saying, she “…out ‘Stanley-ed’ Stanley.”

Celia eventually retired from acting, although we’ve been able to get her on stage for FTC a few times over the years. She is much more content now to be making things happen behind the scenes as FTC’s Company Manager.

So getting one more chance to be on stage with her is truly a gift. Bottom line, she is delightful on stage for both the audience and her fellow actors. She has a huge amount of charisma and offers a little bit of her heart in every line.

The actor playing #4 (Michael) is Michael Herold. I met “Mikey” in the lobby after the Madison Rep’s 1987 production of The Foreigner by Larry Shue. I was in the Army at the time and we were stationed at Fort Knox (BTW here’s another sidebar story – why Sam and Celia joined the Army). I think it was the November show and we were in town for T-Giving. Since we worked at the Rep prior to enlisting and we planned to work there when we returned, seeing their show was a priority.

So I’m watching this play, which I LOVED, and it’s “Who is this new guy?” All I heard is he was from some place in Ohio, he was great on stage, Joe Hanreddy (the Rep’s Artistic Director at the time) really liked him, and that he was a really nice guy. My friend Mark was also in the play and he liked Mikey and it can be hard to impress Mark. Regardless, I thought his performance was wonderful.

Our friendship developed over the next few years after we returned to Madison in 1989. We didn’t work on many shows together (probably because he was really good and I was just a bum), but we worked in the same community. I saw him in a lot of shows and we’d gather socially. I really enjoyed him on stage because he had a beautiful voice, he could dance, and he was a truly creative theater artist. Socially, he was just the sweetest person and an acclaimed raconteur. We were/are lucky to have him in our community.

The pivotal moment in our shared relationship with Mike occurred when he was in town to do a remount of The Foreigner. He stayed with us – we often house out of town actors – you meet some really fun people doing that. However for part of that time, I was away for seven weeks for Army training. The girls were very young at the time. Instead of putting Mikey in the upstairs room off the girl’s room, Celia slept there instead and put him on our room. It was just more convenient. The arrangement worked fine. Mikey was absolutely beautiful with the girls. They loved him. I think he may have even babysat for us a time or two.

One day, my daughters were at my Mom’s house and they were going on and on about how much they loved Mikey.

My mom asked, “Who is Mikey?”

One of the girls answered, “Oh, he’s the man sleeping in mom’s bed while dad’s gone.”

That evening Celia got a phone call. I guess my mom needed a couple of cocktails to bolster her courage because she really loved Celia.

Mom began in slightly slurred speech, “Now Celia, about this man sleeping in your bed…”

After Celia picked herself up of the floor, she explained everything. My mother eventually met Michael and became very, very fond of him.

“Oh, I love Michael. He can sleep anywhere he wants,” said my mom.

The actor playing #3 (Jim, the middle child) is James Buske. In my mind, it’s like I’ve always known Jim. I knew we met doing a play, but I had to ask him for specifics. Jim knew of course - he is a very smart person. We met at an audition for a Madison Theatre Guild production of Who’s Life is it Anyway by Brian Clark. Jim was directing.

It’s story about a man in a hospital bed dealing with the reality of becoming a quadriplegic after a recent car crash. It was a pretty popular play during the early 1980s. Richard Dreyfuss was in the movie and so I sure wanted the lead role, because I sure wanted to be Richard Dreyfuss. Jim, however, decided to switch the protagonist’s gender. I think he made that decision after seeing my audition. He did, however, cast me as the doctor. It was a memorable production. This was back in the day when MTG staged their shows in the McDaniel’s Auditorium in the MMSD building. If you ever saw a play in that place, you are a true hardcore Madison theatergoer. I hope you rented a cushion.

Since then Jim and I have done many shows together, including that iconic production of The 5th of July for the Madison Rep. I have actually directed Jim in numerous plays. One of the most memorable productions was MTG’s production of Harvey somewhere in that void know as the mid-1990s. Jim played the main character, Elwood P. Dowd and he was amazing. His portrayal was entrancing from the very first rehearsal. Jim is an absolutely charming, intelligent and funny person, and he filled Elwood with those same qualities and the performance was riveting. Such a wonderful old chestnut – the play Harvey, not Jim!

I have actually known Norman Moses, who plays #2 (John), more than anyone else in the cast. I met Norman in 1978. I was a theater-bit kid just coming out of high school. I got a job busing tables at the iconic Wilson Street East Dinner Playhouse. If you saw a play there, you can indeed claim veteran Madison theatergoer status. Big Gold Star, there! Willy St. East was a going concern, which started in the late 1970s and closed sometime in the late 80s – I think. It was located where the Essen House is now. The diner theater’s stage was not much bigger the present stage. Instead of polka combos, they staged full-blown musicals like My Fair Lady and Man of La Mancha. It was quite a remarkable place. There are many artists still in our Wisconsin theater community who got their start on that tiny stage. Jim Buske worked there, and our own Sarah Day graced that stage as well.

At the time, I was so in love with the theater (I still am), I would get to work early to get my chores done ahead of time. Once the tables were cleared and the last drink orders were served, I’d watch the show… almost every show. I was taking notes. I was in heaven. I think I watched almost every performance of their production of Fiddler on the Roof.

One of my favorites ever on that postage-stamp stage was Camelot. I watched it almost as much as Fiddler. Norman played King Arthur. Later he was in Willy St. East staging of Godspell (which I also watched a few times, but not as much because I was getting a bit jaded by then). He was wonderful and I became a life long fan. I no longer wanted to be Richard Dreyfuss, I want to be Norman Moses. I wanted to work with Norman Moses.

That dream did eventually come true, a few times over. Twice I was in plays he directed. One of those times was my first professional gig in Milwaukee, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 produced by the former Theatre Tesseract. This was maybe 1990? Later in 2004, I was a last minute replacement for an actor in In Tandem Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. In either show, I’m not sure if he had the choice of hiring me. Perhaps I will ask him.

I finally got to be on stage with Norman in 1991 (I think). We were both cast in Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s Arsenic and Old Lace. It was produced in the Pabst Theatre in downtown Milwaukee. One of my favorite shows ever! It was a chance in a life time to work on that old classic in that beautiful old theater with an amazing cast of actors which included Norman’s spouse Carrie Hitchcock, Ruth Schudsen, Brian Mani, the late Bill Leach, my dear Chris Flieller, and my best friend Mark Lazar. It was a most, most memorable production.

One of the most unforgettable theater moments of my life occurred in that show. My character, Officer O’Hara, the charming young playwright momentarily leaves the stage and the characters of Mortimer, played by Norman, and his mad brother Jonathan, played by Mr. Leach. But instead of taking a few beats, then returning, I was to start a whispered conversation with Brian Mani (who was getting ready to make a entrance and probably trying to concentrate) about how cool it was to be on stage with Norman Moses and Bill Leach! Brian then voiced a little, “Ahem.” And with a big grin, pointed toward the stage. It was then I heard Norman calling my character’s name inquiring where I “had gotten to?” I forgot to re-enter and left Norman Moses and Bill Leach stranded on stage. To heighten the shame, that was the night Celia came to see the show.

I asked Norman about that incident during rehearsal recently. He says he doesn’t remember it. I wonder if he’s just being nice. Celia will never let me forget it.

The amazing Susan Sweeney is playing #1 (Annie). Of the group she is the newest of my friends. I most fortunately met and got to know her only recently through our affiliation with FTC. However, I have known of her for many years. I first knew her as an instructor at the UW Milwaukee’s old Professional Theater Training Program, which many of my friends attended. She was always spoken of with reverence and respect.

She has become a good friend and indeed a mentor. I often corner her at social events and FTC functions and try to get her to tell stories and theater anecdotes, of which she has many. Like me, she is huge Packer fan – she sold me her tickets once and they are great seats! She has also come to see several local community theaters shows that I have been in, and has always offered kind and constructive words.

Being cast in a play with her is an incredible honor and opportunity. Watching her work on this show – in which she carries a huge load – my awe and respect for her has grown exponentially. It’s been almost like being in one of her classes.

She has attacked this role with a charming blend of fearlessness and self-deprecation. Her attention to detail, consistency, commitment to clarity and overall physical toughness has been inspiring. On top of it all, she approaches us all with kindness and immense generosity. She is definitely leading by example and it’s a master class in action!

I do not yet have a personal theatrical anecdote to tell about Susan. But that’s probably going to change after this incredibly complex show! I’m sure the story will be very funny and happy, though.

Bottom line, it is very difficult to express how delightful this whole process has been. What a joy it is to work with this ensemble. A wish you may often hear actors voice is to be “weakest link in the room.” To be in a room with a group of artists who challenge you daily with their talent and commitment is pure bliss. I think that wish has come true for me with this show.

The level of trust, comfort, talent and professionalism between this cast has made this whole process enjoyable and invigorating. They are all bringing the A-game. It just makes me want to do more plays, especially with them!