Sunday, November 27, 2005

There’s Something about Jeff

He’s not a big name in Hollywood, but in Chelsea, Michigan and among people who really know theatre, Jeff Daniels is a very important guy. Check out this profile of the actor and playwright from the Toledo Blade.

On a late fall day, Daniels slumps into the corner of an old couch. His hangdog face rests on his hand. He wears a work shirt and jeans and looks thinner than he does in Good Night (a minor role he took, he says, “to work with Clooney”), and especially thinner than in The Squid and Whale – in which he plays an overbearing, self-absorbed father, a famous writer whose career stalled ages ago; he looms large (in all senses of the phrase) over his broken family, as if to remind them he still exists, his sad blue eyes poking out from behind a salt-and-pepper beard.

The couch is in the far corner of this old gymnasium, which was gutted a while ago and outfitted with wood paneling on the walls. This building, he owns. Or rather, he bought. It was once St. Mary’s, a Catholic grade school – his wife went here. It has since become the Chelsea Center for the Development of the Arts. It was slated for demolition so Daniels and his wife bought it and donated the building. As part of the deal, the Purple Rose gets this permanent rehearsal space. And that’s what Daniels is watching, a table reading of his tenth play, Guest Artist, which opens at the theater in January.

I walk in during the middle of a line, and Daniels leans over and whispers, “Big speech time.”

In short, shut up.

The room is so quiet I can hear stomachs growling 20 feet away. Daniels doesn’t sit at the table with the actors. He listens from a distance. During lulls, he leans over and fills in some of the details: Next fall, he’ll have a prequel to Escanaba in da Moonlight, the theater’s biggest hit. But this is his “take on American theater and how American theater neglects its own.” It has a Toledo inspiration (although it’s set in Steubenville, Ohio). It also brings together a number of refrains you hear after talking to him for a while: unappreciated artists, his life in the Midwest, the defunct Circle Repertory Theater that gave him his start, and playwright Lanford Wilson.

Guest Artist was inspired, he explains, from the time back in 1997 when he drove down to Toledo to pick up Wilson at the train station at six in the morning. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, a cofounder of the Circle Rep, does not fly. He was commissioned to write a play for the Purple Rose, and this would be its unveiling. Except Wilson hadn’t written anything. So he and Daniels had a long conversation – and that’s Guest Artist, a talk between playwrights, one young, the other unappreciated.

I’ve been a big fan of Mr. Daniels since his days at Circle Rep and his work with Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason. I even traded manuscripts with him back in 1993 when I lived in Michigan. It’s great to see that real theatre is being done in places like Chelsea and that there are dedicated artists who will invest their time and themselves in doing the hard work that makes it happen.