At the end of this college year, two specters of AP English nationwide are making an appearance in New Haven, one a British post-modernist resurrected in a highly personal School of Drama thesis and the other an American legend revisiting his old haunts — a production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” by the Yale School of Drama and the premiere of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at the Yale Repertory Theatre are arriving just in time for the end of classes.
Appropriately enough for a play about art imitating life (and vice versa), the premiere of “The Real Thing” in 1982 was dogged by a piece of salacious gossip: Tom Stoppard, its playwright, had just had an affair with an actress that somewhat paralleled the one between the play’s protagonist Henry (a playwright, naturally) and Annie (one of his actresses). To top things off, Stoppard’s paramour had played Annie in “The Real Thing”‘s premiere.
Though director Nick Avila DRA ’05 hopes to not get quite so involved in his production of “The Real Thing,” he does believe in personally investing oneself in the play. Avila selected “The Real Thing” after reading a few dozen plays because it made him so emotional that he could not read it all the way through.
“The Real Thing” focuses on married Henry’s (Dan Colman DRA ’06) affair with Annie (Kathleen McElfresh DRA ’06) during the production of his latest play, and, in Avila’s words, examines “how much we’re willing to sacrifice once we find the real thing, about self-knowledge through pain.”
“People were wary of this play because they thought it would be a very Noel Coward, debonaire, sophisticated approach to love,” Avila said. “But Henry says at one point, ‘I don’t believe in debonaire relationships.’ The characters’ actions are not pretty, but they realize that they are living by standards that don’t matter when the real thing comes along.”
The director’s thesis is the culmination of the three-year School of Drama program, and though Avila was nervous about the show, given that his entire design team and cast was assigned by faculty members in the School of Drama, he said that he could not imagine putting on “The Real Thing” with a different group of people.
“Love means different things to different people,” he said. “We all only hope that anyone who watches the show can relate it to their own experiences and recognize the emotional investment we put into it.”
Avila, who left high school early and went to a community college in California, points out that he didn’t get to the School of Drama “by way of the Ivy League.”
“What I bring to the production is not intellectual, because there are plenty of people with theatrical experiences greater than mine,” he said. “What I bring is my personal experiences — my heart and spirit — and that is why this production of ‘The Real Thing’ is automatically different from any other.”
If Avila’s rendition of “The Real Thing” is an outsider’s response, “Radio Golf,” the latest in prolific two-time Pulitzer winner August Wilson’s oeuvre, is something of the ultimate homecoming.
Wilson’s 10 play “cycle,” which chronicles the life of a black family through each decade of the 20th century, will end with “Golf” right where it began: The Yale Rep premiered the first five of Wilson’s plays.
The members of the “Golf” team sound like a high school reunion of sorts — Timothy Douglass, the director hand-picked by Wilson, was an understudy in Wilson’s first play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” back in the ’80s, and Ben Mordecai, a professor at the School of Drama, shepherded Wilson’s plays from the Rep to Broadway.
“Golf” tells the story of Pittsburgh’s depressed Hill neighborhood through the tale of several black businessmen who have ambitious plans for the region. Reprising themes of discrimination, father-son relationships and community, “Radio Golf” follows the redevelopment of the Hill, the mayoral race of a black candidate and the fate of the property of now-deceased Aunt Ester, the cycle’s spiritual matriarch.
The focus on family and relationships echoes through both plays — and through their productions. Avila, for instance, describes family as the only “real thing.”
“If I don’t have a family to share this with, it’s all for nothing,” he said. “When I’m on my deathbed, hopefully in my 80s, my family will be there for me. Theater won’t be.”