Michael O’Leary, Grant Aleksander, Cynthia Watros and Tina Sloan of ‘Guiding Light’ take the stage in ‘Breathing Under Dirt,’ on the UMES campus August 13-14
When one wants to see star power on stage, they usually make a pilgrimage to either New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore, but on Aug. 13 and 14, something unusual is going to happen. That’s when four alumni of the longest-running drama in American television history, Guiding Light, make a stop for two nights on the Eastern Shore to perform in the world premiere of Breathing Under Dirt, at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center on the campus of UMES in Princess Anne.
Brought to Delmarva by the Lower Shore Performing Arts Company, Breathing Under Dirt was written by none other than GL’s Michael O’Leary, who portrayed the mercurial Dr. Rick Bauer for 281 episodes between 1983 and the series’ finale in 2009. Though Bauer is a veteran actor, he is a relative rookie as a playwright, though that didn’t stop Breathing Under Dirt, his first full-length play, from winning the Manhattan Repertory Theatre competition in March. Bauer, who appears as Chuckie in the play, will be joined onstage by GL costar and Baltimore native Grant Aleksander (Phillip Spaulding) -— who is also directing the production — as well as Tina Sloan (Lillian Raines), who appeared alongside Academy Award winners Ben Affleck and Sydney Pollack in Changing Lanes (2002) and Academy Award winner Natalie Portman in 2011’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Swan.Also joining the cast is Emmy Award winner Cynthia Watros (GL’s Annie Dutton), whose career has included turns on such primetime hits as The Drew Carey Show, House and, perhaps most notably, as Libby Smith on one of the most popular drama series of all time, Lost, which garnered her a SAG Award in 2006. Watros will be portraying the play’s principal character, Patience.
The cast is rounded out by local actor Robert Forester of Hebron, who teaches second grade at Beaver Run Elementary School in Salisbury. A veteran of more than 100 productions and TV commercials, Forester is a graduate of Salisbury University who teaches acting classes at the Purnell Music Studio in Salisbury.
He has been cast in the role of Daddy.
In addition to sharing some industry anecdotes, O’Leary, Sloan, Watros and Forester recently sat down with Coastal Style to take readers backstage about what they can expect from this unprecedented Lower Eastern Shore theatrical event.
CSM: Please tell us a little about the play, Michael.
Michael O’Leary: Breathing Under Dirt is a drama set in 1954, in Macon, Georgia. It revolves around a mother [Sloan] and a daughter [Watros] as they struggle with some deep-seeded resentments toward each other. The plot is about trying to get to that difficult place of reconciliation and forgiveness.
CSM: Have you written many plays?
MO: No, not really. The principal character, Patience, is an adapted version of a character from a play I wrote titled Red Rain, but that work is still in the development stage.
CSM: Your new play has an unusual title. Can you share its significance with us?
MO: While the play certainly has some plot twists and surprises for the audience, what I can say safely is that dirt, in this play, represents some iteration of God, penance and a respite from everyday aspects of one’s own life.
CSM: Between the plot twists you allude to and those themes, it sounds as though you’ve written a rather serious and complicated play. That seems rather ambitious for someone who is relatively new to playwriting. Have you been developing this story for a long time?
MO: Not really – and you’re correct: While the play has its lighter moments, it’s definitely a drama, and it definitely has teeth. I guess you could say the reason I took it on is because I am not completely unfamiliar with or foreign to the circumstances and motivations of the characters; let’s just say that.
CSM: Sounds like you’d prefer not to elaborate
MO: [Laughing] You could say that, yes. What I will add, though, is that despite whatever knowledge I may have about what underlies these characters, they have been altered, evolved and brought way beyond that foundational knowledge.
CSM: Tina, you’ve had a great and varied career, going from a slew of TV commercials and daytime dramas to Oscar-caliber movies like Black Swan. With that track record, what made you want to do this play, down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to boot?
Tina Sloan: Well, first, Mikey [O’Leary’s consensus nickname] wrote a great play with great characters. Dedicated actors want good material above all else, and that’s what we have here. Other incentives had to do with the social aspect. GL had a reputation of being the warmest and most welcoming family in the soap world, and that was absolutely true in my experience there. They all were so wonderful to work with – especially Mikey, who was always so sweet and funny. Many of us still keep in touch to this day, one way or another.
CSM: You worked with visionary director Darren Aronofsky in Black Swan. Having come from the soap world, was that a strange transition?
TS: You might think so, but no. Darren was actually very normal, warm and great to work with. He’s also a wonderful son; he gave his parents roles in Black Swan, so they were on the set all the time. It was very sweet watching Darren interact with his mom and dad. He’s a good boy. You want a Black Swan story?
CSM: Of course!
TS: I was sitting in makeup, between Wynona Ryder and Natalie Portman, on the set of Black Swan, and I leaned over to Natalie and said, “My son was a classmate of yours at Harvard,” and she replied, “Oh, really? Who’s your son?” I said, “His name is Renny McPherson,” and she said, “You’re Renny’s mom!” and proceeded to literally leap out of the chair, threw her arms around me and hugged me. From then on, we were total buds!
CSM: Nice story!
TS: Natalie’s the best.
CSM: Cynthia, you’ve had some otherworldly showbiz experiences of your own. Not only were you highly successful in daytime drama, you went on to do Lost, whose creators, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindleof, are considered two of the most creative forces in TV history. Did you and the others know early on that you were in the middle of something very special?
Cynthia Watros: I’d say special is probably the right word. I joined in season two, but we pretty much knew it was going to be either a huge flop or a huge success. What we also knew for sure is that the writing, directing and acting were going to be state-of-the-art, so that was definitely cause for optimism. Plus, we were working in Hawaii, not exactly a great hardship, if you know what I mean.
CSM: It was a rather large ensemble cast, but did you all pretty much get along most of the time?
CW: We actually did, believe it or not. If you want evidence, just watch the last scene of the series finale, when we all reunite in the church. That wasn’t acting at all. Those warm smiles, tears and hugs were absolutely real because we were not just happy to all be together again but also because we knew we’d just finished something unique and wonderful, something we would likely will never know again. It was truly a life-altering experience.
CSM: Do any of you keep in touch?
CW: Oh, sure. Many of us do. I spoke with Daniel Dae Kim [Jin Kwan] just the other day. He’s an amazing guy.
CSM: Tell me about your character in the play, Patience.
CW: Patience is a very charismatic but very damaged person. She’s broken, actually, yet filled with seeming contradictions. She’s intelligent, sarcastic, but she has a history that has left her hurt and fragile. Her current problem is that her attempts to reconcile her pain are having adverse or detrimental effects in her present life.
CSM: She sounds somewhat reminiscent of Blanche DuBois [Streetcar Named Desire].
CW: Absolutely! Mikey’s play has a definite Tennessee Williams quality to it that makes it very resonant.
TS: Yes, part Williams, part O’Neill, too. It’s a very subtle yet layered play. I’m quite impressed how well Mikey can write female characters.
CSM: Robert, was it at all intimidating working with all this star power?
Robert Forester: [Laughing] It was and IS! Remember, as of this interview, I’ve been cast, but we really haven’t rehearsed together yet.
MO: Robert has a very important role in this production, but what he doesn’t know — yet — is that these are the most delightful people he could have ever chosen to work with. These actors, from Grant to Tina to Cynthia, no matter how impressive their careers may be, are consummate professionals who are here to do the work, not to strut and preen. So, what he’s going to find here are colleagues, not divas. I think the people of the Eastern Shore are in store for a real treat, and we can’t wait to put on a play for them.
Breathing Under Water runs for three performances on Aug. 13 (2 p.m., 7 p.m.) and Aug. 14 (2 p.m.). General-admission tickets are $40; premium seating is $75. There will also be an actors’ workshop hosted by Michael O’Leary on Aug. 14, from 10:30 to noon, at UMES’ Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $75.