News & Articles
Associate Artistic Director Curt Columbus Speaks With Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney
2003-2004, Volume 4
Curt Columbus: Kevin, you brought I Never Sang For My Father to Steppenwolf's attention, right?
Kevin Anderson: Martha [Lavey, Artistic Director] called me last spring and asked if there was anything I'd like to do. I had mentioned the play to her a few years ago and we didn't do it then, so I said, "There's something about this play that I can't get out of my mind." So she talked to John, he loved the idea, and that's how it got going.
John Mahoney: When Martha called me and said Kevin wanted to do this play, I jumped at the chance for two reasons. First, because I think it's a terrific play. And second, because Kevin and I haven't worked together on stage for over 20 years. We had quite a run together last time — three or four months in Chicago with Orphans, and then a whole year in New York. Of course, that experience changed our whole lives. It was a year–and–a–half of real joy.
CC: The Orphans experience is definitely iconic in Steppenwolf history. What was so special about that piece?
JM: First of all, it was an extremely powerful, visceral play that just riveted audiences. We all had a hand in the development of the script, because Lyle [Kessler] was rewriting as we went along. I remember some very fiery sessions. [laughs] At one point he wanted my character, Harold, to come back to life at the end, and I remember Terry Kinney saying, "I'm not going through this whole fucking play, screaming and carrying on, only to have this guy spring back to life!" [laughter]
KA: Lyle was usually hanging around rehearsal, but then he would go back to his room to write. This one day after Lyle left, Gary [Sinise, the play's director] was trying to get me off the couch. I initially saw my character Phillip as sort of retarded, just lying around clutching a blanket. Gary kept trying to get me to move, to be like a little kid. I don't know what got into me, this little kid fever, I guess, but I took my clothes off and started running around naked. [laughter] Were you there John?
JM: It was freezing! It was in the rehearsal room at the old theater. I remember you did the entire rehearsal stark naked.
KA: And then Lyle wandered up. [laughter] Gary had been saying to him that morning, "We really want to make some changes," and this is what Lyle saw when he came back into the room. His face just went white, he must have thought Gary was saying, "Now, see, this is how I envisioned it!" [laughter]
JM: I would try to work in plays that Gary had directed before, and he would never cast me. I thought he hated me and my work. Especially when we did Tracers, I was the only ensemble member who was a real vet and, damn it, he still went outside the company to cast Dennis Farina. [laughs] I guess he had just been waiting for the right thing for me, which it turns out was Orphans. His direction was brilliant; he really knows how to get to the guts of something and tear it out.
KA: Working with those guys, right around the time I had been asked into the company, was when my whole world snapped into place. It was like a creative birth for me. I was working in Chicago at musical houses and playing ingénues, and I really wasn't very happy. Suddenly, I met this group of people who were inspiring me to reach for levels I didn't even know I had in me.
JM: Orphans affected people more than any other play I've ever done. I still get mail from it, I still get people stopping me on the street, and it's twenty years later.
CC: And the central relationship in that play is a father–son relationship, wouldn't you say?
KA: Oh, yeah.
CC: All adult men have father issues, don't you think? What's so resonant about the ones presented in this play?
KA: I used to compete on the forensics team in high school. My teacher's name was John Davis, and he introduced me to I Never Sang For My Father. My dad was different than the father in the play; he wasn't rough on me, didn't have the "brigadier–general" thing that Tom has in the play. But there still was that emotional wall, which I could interpret into whatever I was doing. What's weird about it is, when I performed my piece from I Never Sang For My Father one Saturday, my dad showed up. He rarely did that because he worked so hard. Unbeknownst to me, my mom had dragged him to the performance. I remember feeling really nervous when I went to perform, but at the same time, very inspired and centered by his presence, too. It got me to a deeper level, just to have my dad out there.
Little did I know back then that I would actually experience what happens in the play; when I was about 22, my dad got brain cancer. He died not long after that, and it's been a quest of mine to come to terms with that. That last line really says it all: "When you say the word 'father', it matters." He's still alive for me, probably more alive for me now than he was back then.
JM: My father had his own wall up. I don't remember my father ever bouncing me on his knee, or hugging me, or giving me a kiss. He just wasn't that kind of a man, he was very private. He was a great provider for our family, but he would come home from work, shut himself in the parlor, and play Chopin for hours. I probably did want his love and approval, but I didn't realize how much it meant to me until the morning I was immigrating from England to the United States. My dad was a baker, and he always left very early to go to work. That morning, he shook me awake for the first time in my life — I was 19 — and sat down on the bed. He gave me a big hug, and a kiss, and wished me luck. That was the only time in my life that he ever did that. It was also the last time I ever saw him.
CC: I can see why this play is so resonant for both of you.
JM: Well, it certainly sounds like we both have a lot to bring to the production.
KA: It sure does.