By David Hennessey
Long Time, No See
There are two main instances in the theatre when an actor may be called on to play the same role a second time. I’ve experienced them both.
One is when a production is so successful it’s revived soon after it closes with the same direction, same design and virtually the same cast. I did that as Mr. Pilbeam in Park Square Theatre’s On Borrowed Time in 1992 and again the following year. In that case my job was simply to recreate what I had already done.
The second situation is when you play the same role in two separate productions of a play, as I’m doing now, reprising Dr. Rank from Commonweal’s 2002 run of A Doll’s House.
In this case, my job is very different. Though I already had a good idea of Rank’s journey as I entered rehearsals, I tried to approach the part from scratch, as if doing it for the first time, because a new production is a chance to look at a familiar story with fresh eyes.
This wasn’t hard to do because we had a different translation. In 2002, director Craig Johnson put together the script from several different translations. This year, we have Jeffrey Hatcher’s completely new adaptation of the play. Besides putting the story into more contemporary language, Jeffrey has a keen eye and ear for places where Ibsen reveals his ironic sense of humor. In English, Ibsen tends to suffer from translations that completely overlook this. Then there’s the director’s take on the story, which always influences an actor’s approach to the role. Any great play will stand up to many different interpretations. In 2002, Craig looked at A Doll’s House as three love stories: love dying (Nora and Torvald), love rekindled (Mrs. Linde and Krogstad), and love unrequited (Rank and Nora). This year, Director Hal Cropp focuses more on Nora’s journey from a superficially cheerful wife to a woman who learns to live with intention. To help her make that transition, Hal had us look for ways that each character could give Nora something to help her change.
We decided Dr. Rank helps her realize that leaving people is a natural occurrence in life, and grief can pass relatively quickly for most people left behind. This led to a different way of approaching Rank’s scene with Nora in Act II.
Start of spoiler alert.
The last time I did the role, Rank entered Act II knowing he wanted to declare his love to her but not sure how. This time, he comes in simply wanting her to accept his impending death and go on living. The love declaration only pops up after several misinterpreted cues he receives during the scene. This allows me to make more discoveries as the scene progresses. It’s a fun series of exchanges I have with Stef Dickens Underferth, playing Nora in the current version.
End of spoiler alert.
The final difference between my two Dr. Ranks is shaped by more than a decade of additional life experience and a more intuitive creative process.
I saw a concrete example of this after a few weeks of rehearsal when I finally looked for all my notes about Dr. Rank from 2001. I had been avoiding them so they wouldn’t unduly color my new approach to the character. But once I felt grounded enough in a fresh interpretation, I ventured a peek at notes still on my laptop. I counted no less than 15 separate documents on various aspects of the character.
That’s a big difference from today. For this production I have exactly three computer files devoted to him, and none is more than one page. Instead of writing reams about him, I’ve penciled in short notes in the script designed to stimulate my imagination before each performance. Eighty percent of what used to be a detailed, analytical and fairly laborious process for me has now become largely intuitive and more focused.
Playing Dr. Rank again is a little like visiting an old friend I haven’t seen for more than a decade. As we recall some great times together, we also both enjoy how much we’ve changed.