Actors play ‘Normal’ as a story on marriage, not gender identity

"Looking for Normal," a play about how people deal with adversity in their personal relationships, o
David Orr, as Ray, and Barbara Richards, as Irma, rehearse a scene from "Looking for Normal."
PHOTOGRAPHER:
David Orr, as Ray, and Barbara Richards, as Irma, rehearse a scene from "Looking for Normal."

As far as David Orr and Barbara Richards are concerned, “Looking for Normal” is a play about how people deal with adversity in their personal relationships. Sure, gender identity may dominate Jane Anderson’s 2001 script, being performed Friday through March 22 at the Curtain Call Theatre, but even the playwright suggests the topic itself is almost irrelevant.

“We have a guy who feels he is a woman born in a man’s body, but I was reading what Jane Anderson had to say in her notes, and she said that’s not the main topic and that’s not the reason she wrote the play,” said Orr, who plays Roy Applewood, a man who after 25 years of marriage resigns himself to the fact that he has been living a lie. “The play is really dealing with love and marriage, and how people suffer through issues, and how some things survive and some don’t. That’s the important message, regardless of the subject matter and what the characters are going through. That’s what I found so appealing about the play.”

Richards, who most recently was in “The Glass Menagerie” at Curtain Call in September, plays Roy’s wife, Irma. And, like Orr, she says the play is much more than a discussion about gender identity.

“It’s something that to the average person might seem like a bizarre story, but it’s the message that counts, and it’s that universal message telling us that what really counts is who we are inside and the loyalties that we make in our lives. I’m hoping that people aren’t turned off by the subject matter, because it’s a play more about marriage and relationships than the sensationalism of someone wanting to change their gender. Of course, if we can bring some sensitivity and understanding to that issue, that’s nice, too.”

“Looking for Normal” was first produced at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2001. It was then made into an HBO movie with Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson in 2003, although Hollywood changed the title to just “Normal.” Although it never reached Broadway, it has been a hot commodity around the country since its HBO showing, and the Curtain Call production is a regional premiere.

Cindy Bates is directing the Curtain Call version, and she felt it was important to get two actors who were believable as husband and wife. Having worked with Richards before, Bates felt she’d be right for the part, but she had no idea who Roy Applewood would be until Orr auditioned for the role.

“I had Barbara in the back of my mind, but this is the first time I’ve worked with David,” said Bates, who directed the Curtain Call production of “The Glass Menagerie.” “But as soon as I heard him read for the part, I knew he was our man. He has such an honesty and gentleness that he brings to the part. He’s been great and I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.”

While Orr and Richards were right for the parts, they were also right for each other.

“This play is about the trauma people go through when they make tough decisions in their life. So it was definitely important for them to connect as actors,” said Bates. “The heart of this play goes back to the love of two people regardless of gender or sexual preference. There’s an essence of love — so it was important for them to have some sort of spark to guide them through this difficult journey.”

Orr, a fireman with the Schenectady Fire Department, was most recently in “I Hate Hamlet” last April at Home Made Theater in Saratoga Springs, playing the ghost of John Barrymore. He has worked at Curtain Call once before, playing Herman in “Stage Struck” in 2003. He was happy to have an opportunity to return to the Curtain Call stage, but the time commitment and the role itself did produce in him some trepidation.

“The schedule at Curtain Call tends to be more demanding due to the length of the run, and there are also performances Wednesday through Sunday,” he said. “So the time commitment is tough, but as an actor I’m enjoying the opportunity because the schedule is a lot like what you would see if you were a professional actor. When you do community theater, you’re just starting to get comfortable with the role and then the run ends. The schedule at Curtain Call allows you to develop the role a little bit. You never know how certain scenes are going to work until you get them in front of an audience. So with a long run, you can play with those moments. That’s why all those big Broadway plays have previews out of town for a while. They want to do the play in front of an audience so they can fine-tune it a bit.”

Another concern of Orr’s was the gender identity issue. Working in a male-dominated profession, he was a little worried about what “the guys” might say.

“To be honest with you, I was a little reluctant because of the whole issue,” said Orr. “But when I told the guys about it, they were pretty open-minded. Hey, it’s 2008 and it’s old news. They understood why I wanted to do it, and most of them actually encouraged me, and that was very nice. You know I was going to get ribbed a little bit, but it’s been very minimal and good-natured. Fortunately, I work with a group of enlightened guys.”

While the play centers on Orr’s character and the issues facing him, equally important is Richards’ portrayal of the wife.

“The story is as much about Irma as it is Roy,” said Orr. “The story moves along with what’s happening to Roy, but it’s Irma’s reaction and how they move through this crisis together that’s the important message. It’s how they deal with it and come out the other side, and it’s been great working with and getting to know Barbara. We’ve been bouncing a lot of ideas off each other, and that’s made this experience very rewarding.”

“The play is about the loyalties we make in our life, and with the relationship between this couple being very important, it was great that I immediately felt a connection with David,” said Richards. “It helps the more you work with a person, and I so wanted to do this play because I found its message so moving. The characters are finely drawn and very compelling, but they’re also simple and honest. It’s great writing.”

Although the gender issue may be secondary to how the two main characters battle through their problems, Bates hopes the play will make life easier for those currently in the process of dealing with their sexual identity.

“If this play can help erase some of the trauma that people go through when they’re dealing with this issue, then that’s great,” she said. “Hopefully, society can refocus, so that people don’t have that same gut reaction and say, ‘Oh my God, a man trapped inside a women’s body.’ Hopefully, we can circumvent that crisis that tends to go along with these tough decisions that people have to make.”

‘Looking for Normal’

WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham

WHEN: Friday through March 22. Performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays.

HOW MUCH: $20

MORE INFO: 877-7529

Categories: Life and Arts

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