Remembering DC actor/director Richard M. Mancini, whose memorial is this Sunday at Keegan

So many of the benchmarks from my almost forty years working in the small professional theatre scene in Washington, DC were shared with my dear friend Richard Mancini.

Opening the original Source Theatre Company space on 14th Street in 1980; appearing with Nancy Robinette in Source’s 10th anniversary revival in 1987 of its first ever show (In the Shadow of the Glen); being a founding company member during SCENA Theatre’s first season (1987); being a founding ensemble member of Washington Shakespeare Company (1990); opening WSC’s Clark Street Playhouse (1995); sitting next to each other, and giving each other a tight hug, when we both were honored by Theatre Lobby with their Mary Goldwater award, each of us for our role in WSC’s Tiny Alice (2002).

A memorial for Richard will be held on Sunday, November 27th, at 6:30pm. Keegan Theatre (at 1742 Church St., NW) is graciously hosting the event — and fittingly so because, in addition to the hallmarks listed above, Richard could boast to having helped launch Keegan, as an actor in its first production (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1997).

Richard played leading roles memorably. He was Prospero for WSC in 1993; played the title role in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Romulus the Great for SCENA (1992); and Robert, the older actor, in Mamet’s two-hander A Life in the Theatre at Signature Theatre (1991).

However, he was always willing to tackle smaller challenges. I remember when he played a supporting part in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm for WSC in 1994. The Washington Post’s chief theatre critic at the time, Lloyd Rose, didn’t care much for the production, but she led her notice with a paragraph devoted to Richard’s crafty portrayal.

When WSC did A Streetcar Named Desire in 1995, Richard covered three roles: the john who gets rolled by a hustler (usually cut); the flower-seller (in drag: “flores para los muertos”); and, finally, the doctor to whom Blanche addresses her famous “kindness of strangers” line.

Our version was uncut, presented in three acts, and clocked in at about 3:20. This meant, among other things, that Richard didn’t come on for the first time until our Act Three, some time after ten o’clock. So, his call was quite late. (Richard often ran late, but could always be counted on to get into costume with lightning speed, never to miss an entrance.) He told me about going one night to a party, staying till about ten, excusing himself for a bit while he went over to (what was then called) Church Street Theatre, and returning to the party, as if he had just run out to feed a meter or something.

It was late in 1979 when I first met Richard. I had gone to an open call audition at Source. I ended up cast as Michael Williams (the commoner who challenges the King, while the King is disguised among the troops) in Henry V.

Also cast in the show was Richard. He was playing Montjoy, the Emissary of the French King.

Back in the mid-80s, Source actors went on cruises, providing the entertainment. Richard is in drag up front. Pat Murphy Sheehy is standing second from left.

Back in the mid-80s, Source actors went on cruises, providing the entertainment. Richard is in drag up front. Pat Murphy Sheehy is standing second from left.

 

The director, Source’s legendary founder Bart Whiteman, conflated various other French characters into Richard’s role, in order to keep the cast-size reasonable. That effort notwithstanding, the cast was huge, and the project was mammoth.

We rehearsed it, workshopped it, played odd venues such as art galleries and the ballroom at Glen Echo. Eventually, there was a short run in the tiny performance space above DC Space; another couple of weeks at Washington Project for the Arts (back when it was still at 13th and G); and, finally, a proper four-week run when Source ceased being itinerant and opened its first permanent home at 14th and S. (That was at 1809 14th, down the block from the current Source building, which Bart began leasing a couple of years later.)

As memory serves (let’s remember, Jimmy Carter was still President then, so this history is ancient), that run on 14th St. finished up toward the end of June in 1980. So, for those of us who stuck with it throughout (which was most of us, and both of us), the entire commitment, from audition until close, turned out to be about six months.

Cast from The Mound Builders at Source (1987). Clockwise from Richard Mancini (in the bright red shirt) is Christopher Wilson, Jane Beard, Christopher Henley, Zoe Cowan.

Cast from The Mound Builders at Source (1987). Clockwise from Richard Mancini (in the bright red shirt) is Christopher Wilson, Jane Beard, Christopher Henley, Zoe Cowan.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers shared a unique experience. So many of the folks I met in and around Source (and, later, Spheres Theatre Company, and, eventually, SCENA Theatre) became important professional colleagues and close friends.

We worked together again and again, and eight of us eventually became the core ensemble of a new theatre, Washington Shakespeare Company.

If you count up the number of times we acted together, and include times one of us directed the other, Richard and I worked together many dozens of times.

When he first came to town, Richard had a place on Swann St., NW, between 17th and 18th, but soon moved to a lovely, spacious one-bedroom at The Dorchester, where he lived for the rest of his DC years. The apartment number was 214 — Valentine’s Day, he would always point out. Back in the 80s, the Meridian Hill neighborhood wasn’t as inviting as it is now. His car was broken into repeatedly. (The inside was immaculate, with nothing ever visible, so the vandalism was fruitless and particularly frustrating.)

The Dorchester is a great old building with long, plushly carpeted halls, and a ground floor that housed retail services. Many a rehearsal was held there. I remember doing a drinking run-through of The Homecoming by Pinter (1982, Spheres Theatre Company) in Richard’s apartment. Later, after the Spheres run at Washington Project for the Arts (which had moved to 7th and D St., NW since our Henry V run), Bart offered us a few weeks at Source, in advance of which we ran the show for Bart at The Dorchester, prompting Bart’s observation that we were doing the Tennessee Williams version of Pinter.

That wicked critique inspired me to try a few new things in order to push the Pinterian quotient, and I sprung them on Richard during the final dress at Source. His character Max begins the play searching for a pair of scissors. My chap Lenny (Max’s son) doesn’t help him out. A few moments later, I pulled a pair from my pocket to cut something out of a newspaper. Richard played the new stimulus with wonderful aplomb.

In 1989, a bunch of hands from the various Source/Spheres/SCENA crews began reading Hamlet in our apartments around town, with TJ Edwards (who had played another of Richard’s sons, Teddy, in The Homecoming) reading the Dane. With past as prologue, and with Bart again at the helm, another workshop process began of another Shakespeare play, ten years after our first encounter with Bart, the Bard, and each other. (Well, to be precise, Richard knew Bart before Henry V, having been in the cast of Source’s late 70s Three Sisters.)

The Hamlet project was rehearsed almost exclusively at The Dorchester. Richard had arranged for us to use space in what was being remodeled for use as a medical suite. Satellite rehearsals of various scenes occurred upstairs chez Richard — the apartment always looking immaculate, with its signature bowl of green spearmint jellies on a table in the vestibule.

Often, you would see that week’s birthday cards, set out and ready for mailing. (I’ve never met someone who was so impressively organized, at the same time as he could otherwise be quite scattered.)

The first public performances of Washington Shakespeare Company’s inaugural Hamlet occurred in that raw space, in the basement of The Dorchester, and thus began the company which still exists as WSC Avant Bard.

Manners had meaning to Richard. I remember his complaint after the offer of a ride into town from Clark Street Playhouse had been accepted, but not really acknowledged, by a new acquaintance. I felt bad; Richard had made the offer as a favor to me.

When I brought him back to the Dorchester from GW after heart surgery (in 1993), and stayed with him for his first few nights home, we were, then, close enough that I didn’t expect to receive the card thanking me for the care, but it arrived. A couple of years later, when he played Antonio in my production of The Merchant of Venice (WSC, 1996), he was entirely unselfconscious when called upon to expose his surgical scar during the scene when his eponymous merchant was forced to present his breast before Shylock’s knife.

I remember the poignance of his Robert in A Life in the Theatre. (Before he did the part at Signature in the 90s, I had directed him in the role in 1981; it was a one-off rental of the old GALA space when they were on 18th St. in Adams Morgan.) One night while I was watching the show, during the scene when Robert’s wrist is being bandaged after a half-hearted and thwarted suicide attempt, a guy in the audience had become so invested in Richard’s portrayal that he began moaning, “No! No!” as if he were witnessing a good friend in distress.

I remember The Mound Builders (Source, 1987) and the moment when I looked over at him during the run of a scene and saw not Richard but, suddenly and fully, his character, listening with an academic’s focus and intelligence. I remember my mother (who loved my WSC production of Uncle Vanya, 1994) was particularly taken with Richard’s cranky Professor in that production.

Nancy Grosshans was a special friend of Richard’s (and she was also in that Vanya). Like him, she was a tad bit older than most of the rest of us in the small theatre scene in those days, so they would get the older roles. They used to joke about how they’d each played the other’s child at different times. Richard would often house-sit in Silver Spring when Nancy and her husband Bud would travel. Richard was in town for the memorial to Nancy a couple of years ago, the last time we saw each other.

The three of us were in Tartuffe (Source, 1988) in a production directed by Joe Banno. I remember Joe comparing Richard to another actor who was also having line challenges. Whereas the other actor would stop dead until the correct line would come to him, Richard would keep going, full-speed, paraphrasing, sometimes desperately. I remember two occasions in particular watching with tears of laughter in my eyes as Richard went off-book in Shakespeare. It was unquestionably more entertaining than any Christopher Durang satire — or than the hilarious backstage antics in which Richard partook during either run of A Life in the Theatre.

As I mentioned, he directed as well as acted. I was in his Saint Joan (WSC, 1990-91) and remember him exhorting an actor about the stakes of war as the first Gulf War was unfolding on our radios on the way to and from rehearsals. I was his Lysander (WSC, 1994) and remember David Fendig, our Bottom, observing with pride that only one director other than Richard had given him a note on how to improve following the final performance.

 

Brian Hemmingsen, Christopher Henley, and Richard Mancini, in Orphans from Moving Target Theatre Company, 1988 (Phoeo: Ian Armstrong)

Brian Hemmingsen, Christopher Henley, and Richard Mancini, in Orphans from Moving Target Theatre Company, 1988 (Phoeo: Ian Armstrong)

He directed The Normal Heart, which opened WSC’s Clark Street Playhouse. The conditions were challenging, as the space was literally being built around the rehearsals, and the chief builder of the theatre, Brian Hemmingsen, was also in the play. Just this year, someone came up to me in a theatre lobby to tell me how memorable and powerful the resulting production was.

Brian was in many of the productions that Richard and I did together. The tally of shows involving the three of us (often, again, one of the three of us was the director) runs into the dozens as well.

A most memorable production with us three together has to be Orphans (Moving Target Theatre Company, 1988), a riotously funny and deeply poignant play for three actors that we attacked with relish. It was an extremely physical play, performed during Summer in a space without air conditioning; but it was a magical Summer for me.

Another highlight involving us three was a couple of plays by Beckett, that most singular of stylists. Richard was particularly suited to the Beckettian universe. He was Nagg for SCENA (1988 and again in 1999; I was in the second production only) and Lucky for WSC (1994 and 2004; again, I was in the second production only).

Richard’s day gig for many, many years was at the Smithsonian, designing displays for the gift shops and such. Countless times, I called him at work and heard him answer the phone, “Visual Presentation, Richard Mancini.” So apt.

1983 was the first year that Richard and I shared Tony Awards night at his apartment. (That was the year of Torch Song Trilogy and Cats.) We weren’t always in the same city for the ceremony, but, when we were, that was where we were.

Richard Mancini returned to Rochester, NY. Shown here in Mrs. Warren's Profession, 2013

Richard Mancini returned to Rochester, NY. Shown here in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2013

Richard was from Rochester. He moved back there a few years ago to be closer to his family, who were so important to him. Richard never stopped working as an actor, if he did eventually slow down. During our last phone chat a few months ago, he spoke about doing Rope, directed by a friend of his, and also, and with particular affection, about his most recent role, in The Hot L Baltimore.

His last couple of shows for us were Richard II (as the gardener) and, finally, The Cherry Orchard, as Fiers, the family retainer. At the end of that play, Fiers has been left alone on the abandoned estate, forgotten.

Richard had to crawl beneath the stage in order to make his final entrance through a trap in the floor. It was fully expected that this would end up becoming a hardship for the cast’s oldest (by far) member. But he never complained and did that soldier’s crawl every performance.

Richard played the ghost of Hamlet’s Father when we ended our first WSC season with a revised production directed by me. In addition to his acting, Richard also designed the costumes.

I remember a run after which he asked to speak to the cast in order to express his displeasure that costumes were being flung about carelessly throughout the dressing room. He lectured the children about the importance of attending properly to their wardrobe. Ever since hearing that, I’ve always made sure that my pieces are hung-up properly. His closing exhortation rings still in my ear and provides an appropriate epitaph:

“Care! Care! Care!”

Christopher Henley About Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley began acting (1979) and directing (1980) around DC with Source Theatre Company. He was a founding Ensemble Member at WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company); was its Artistic Director for more than 16 years; and continues as its Artistic Director Emeritus and as a member of the Acting Company. Other theatres at which he has worked include SCENA Theatre (founding company member), Longacre Lea Productions, Folger Theatre, The American Century Theater, Quotidian Theatre Company, and Ambassador Theatre, in addition to several companies no longer functioning, such as Cherry Red Productions, Spheres Theatre Company, and Moving Target Theatre.

Comments

  1. Michael J Comlish says:

    A wonderful tribute, Christopher. I actually just found out about his life coming to an end on Facebook. He was a great friend of yours Christopher, and I know you will always have fond memories. He had a light hearted wit and an understated irony. This season I will miss getting a Madonna and Child Christmas card from him for the first time. Life goes by so quickly, doesn’t it? I’ll never forget Richard’s rendition of a line one night as Prospero in The Tempest: “But release us from our brands (sic),with the help of your good hands.” Nor his getting milked by Rose of Sharon at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, way back in 1992 (24 years ago!!!) when I first got to know all of you…

  2. Wayne De Cesar says:

    Thank you for a great tribute to Richard. I first met him in Rochester, NY, working with the amateur theatre group Blackfriars. I heard he moved to the DC area and met him again when I relocated here and saw his production of Saint Joan.

    I remember him fondly as a man and actor of a kind and generous spirit. He will be missed by many

  3. Quinn Hanchette says:

    Very good words, Chris. He did care and we are the better for his many gifts, not to mention the gentlemanly grace he always seemed to carry with him.

  4. Gae Schmitt says:

    A wonderful tribute to a superb actor and director. Ed Johnson and I sent our condolences.

  5. Dear Richard Mancini – always memorable on stage and always a gent with a twinkle in his eye off stage. I will miss him. Thanks for this lovely tribute, Chris.

  6. What a beautiful tribute this is, and to such a generous and impeccable person. He was always serious about the work, and never prescious about it or himself. He was, in my memory, generous with compliments. But he was such an acute observer that he made you feel seen and recognized. I’ll be out of town for this evening of remembering Richard. Thank you for this thoughtful and beautiful piece.

  7. Tricia McCauley says:

    Beautiful tribute, Chris! I think of Richard every time I wish my castmates “Break your pins!” – I picked that up from him during that 2nd run of Scena’s Endgame that we all did. xo

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