When two of North America’s foremost theater artists decided to perform the world premiere of a new one-woman show, both said Denton was the place it needed to happen.
David Hammond, former resident director for the American Conservatory Theatre and arts division chairman at Guilford College in North Carolina, said opening The Tall Boy in Denton made sense because of the University of North Texas.
“This is a wonderful program, and a wonderful facility,” said Hammond, who has had a yeoman’s experience in the country’s theaters, including the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Yale Repertory Theatre and a host of Shakespeare festivals.
“And the faculty? It’s been a pleasure to work with [theater professor and Fullbright Scholar] Marjorie [Hayes], and our lighting designer, Adam Chamberlin, he’s with the production, and you don’t always have the luxury of having wonderful designers who are on the team with you. He gets it. It’s been great.”
Hammond is directing The Tall Boy, a long-awaited project for its co-producer and sole performer, Tandy Cronyn — who made her Broadway debut as Sally Bowls in Cabaret. She said the decision to stage the play in Denton was both serendipitous and sensible.
“I know Marjorie through a mutual friend of ours,” said Cronyn, the daughter of theater giants Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. “We were having lunch one day and the conversation took that inevitable turn where everyone is asking, ‘What are you working on?’ I told Marjorie about the show, and she said ‘send it to me.’ I did. She read it once, then told me that UNT wanted to do it.”
The Tall Boy is the stage adaptation of Boyle’s short story “The Lost,” which was part of a collection of Boyle’s stories in an anthology titled Smoking Mountain. Cronyn said she happened to pick up the book in the library when she’d talked to her peers about wanting to produce a one-woman show.
The Tall Boy is about Annie, the American matron of a Bavarian displaced persons camp for children after World War II. Annie relives the stories of three boys — a Czech, a Pole and an Italian — who had been taken in by American GIs during the war. The boys adopted the soldiers’ accents, clothing and mannerisms.
When the soldiers return to America, the boys dream of going with them. Instead, they are placed at the camp. As Annie recalls the boys, she reveals American quirks and assumptions — some of which will make audiences wince.
“There was this one story that grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go,” she said. “I’d been wanting to do a one-woman show. I had been looking and looking and looking for a project.”
Cronyn eventually shared Boyle’s “The Lost” with Hammond, who’d partnered with Cronyn on at least two ill-fated previous attempts to complete an adaptation for the stage. Hammond said he read it and knew just the writer to adapt it.
“I’d seen the adaptation of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany by Simon Bent at the National Theatre in London. It was amazing. I got in touch with him and told him I wanted to do the show in America,” Hammond said.
Hammond directed the American premiere of Meany. The experience taught him that Bent was a deft dramatist with a keen editor’s mind.
“Every time he cuts a line we love, he ends up being right. There have been times in this project where he’s cut a line that Tandy and I just love and the two of us are like, ‘No! You have to keep that line! It’s so beautiful!’ But he’s always right. Always.”
UNT theater students are acting as the technical and running crew of the play.
“This is a real coup for us to get someone of Tandy Cronyn’s caliber — not to mention David Hammond and Simon Bent. This is really unparalleled,” said Hayes, who has just assumed the newly made position of managing director of UNT theater production. “Usually, our students are doing shows that are scripted. The research has been done by the time they get to the play. For students, they want to know how playwrights arrived at the decisions they made. They get to see that process.”
“They get to see Tandy and I go at it,” he said. “They’re there when I’m telling her, ‘You need to do this instead of what you’re doing,’ and then see her say, ‘You’re crazy! Wait, what do you mean?’ Then they hear the discussion and see the change immediately.”
Cronyn said she is a character actress first and foremost. She said that “stepping into someone else’s skin” is done with varying degrees of sweat.
“If I’m doing an A.R. Gurney show about East Coast WASPs, well, that’s not much of a stretch. The less like you a character is, the more work you have to do. It happens with every play where you play multiple characters. The ones who are easier are not as important. And they are never my favorites,” she said.
Hammond said The Tall Boy deserves a theatrical adaptation. It was a story begging to be breathed into a real, three-dimensional experience.
“Everything that is in this story is here with us today,” Hammond said. “The story is really Annie’s. She’s American, and she takes for granted a certain sense of infallibility. She looks at this camp and she thinks that the things that have happened would never happen back home, even though there were serious things about race going on in America. You can’t really point your finger and say ‘this happened because those people did that thing.’ You can’t do that and not think about what you’ve done yourself.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
THE TALL BOY
• What: a one-woman show by Simon Bent, starring Tandy Cronyn and directed by David Hammond
• When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 5 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Studio Theatre in the UNT Radio, Television, Film and Performing Arts Building, at the corner of Welch and Chestnut streets. Free parking is available at the metered lots on Welch Street.
• Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students. Audience talkbacks with the artists will follow all performances except the 5 p.m. Saturday show. To make reservations, call 940-565-2428 or 817-267-3731, ext. 2428.