“I fell in love with it instantly when I read it. There is something about it that I connected to emotionally.” Tom Story has a sister. Not only in real life, but also in The Wolfe Twins, the world premiere of which had its official opening yesterday at Studio Theatre. Story and I spoke a few days before technical rehearsals were to begin, and he explained that he has done a lot of plays in which his character has had a brother. Since he doesn’t have a brother, he would substitute from his own experience in having a sister. This time, though, since “I have a sister who is very close in age to me, I know what that particular dynamic is between a gay brother and a straight sister.”
Story described the play to me: “There’s something about it that’s gentle. A lot is happening in these people’s lives, but it’s not played out as a Greek family drama. It’s a very simple story of siblings who reconnect: who at one point were really close, who drifted apart, who then take a trip to Italy [together] after the death of their father.” During the trip, they meet an “adorable, sexy, vaguely mysterious Italian guy — then we meet another traveller, a really beautiful, cool woman who is an artist.”
Since this is a world premiere, I asked if playwright Rachel Bonds had been around a lot and how it was for Story to work with the playwright. “It’s a new experience for me. I have worked on new plays, but not that many. I’ve originated maybe three or four roles during a 16-year career, maybe five,” but the only other time the playwright was routinely in the room was when Story premiered a Karen Zacarías play.
Bonds has been “in town the whole time. There have been two days when she has not been here. She’s very involved in it. And I love it. I love her. There’s something about her voice that I just feel I kind of understand and connect to. She’s from the south but doesn’t have an accent. She went to Brown and lives in New York now. I am also from the south, but have lived in the north for a long time. There’s something about the way she captures speech. There are some playwrights whose words actors understand how to speak. I connected to her way of speaking and her use of language.” He then drew a comparison with what speaking the language of a David Mamet character is for him, saying, “I don’t know how to say this like a person; it doesn’t feel right speaking it. But the way she phrases things, her choice of words, I know what she’s getting at.”
I asked if the playwright had drawn the play from her own life, and Story told me that the play “is not at all autobiographical. She took a trip to Italy on her honeymoon, but she doesn’t have a brother. The setting might have inspired her, but the characters and relationships are from her imagination.”
I asked whether the script has been in flux. Story told me that “the rewrites are very, very small. We’ve never gotten a new scene that had anything drastically re-written. There have been little things that connect moments, little turns of phrase.” He explained that Bonds had done a workshop of the play, one that Story hadn’t been able to be involved in, after which she produced a new draft with revisions. But “the play is very subtle. The rewrites have been very subtle.”
Story describes his role as “a witty, urbane New York City jokester, very specifically gay.” But, he stressed, it’s not an episode of Will and Grace: “They’re people, they are trying to find connection. The play feels very Chekhovian to me. There is loss and sadness, but they’re still drinking wine and eating Melba toast.”
Story isn’t the only local in the cast. The other male character, Alex, is played by Silas Gordon Brigham, who is “local and incredibly talented. He’s going to work tons. He’s a great type and an incredibly sweet guy.” The director, Mike Donahue, is new to town and came as a package with the play; the two women in the cast (Birgit Huppuch and Jolly Abraham) are also from out of town.
At this point, we began to talk about a shift in Story’s focus. This busy actor has begun bouncing back and forth between sides of the footlights — he has now become a director. Last season, he directed Moth for Studio, and over the summer he directed Design for Living at Berkshire Theatre Group. (Yes, the same Noël Coward play in which he played a lead at Shakespeare Theatre Company not so long ago.) He’ll be back at the director’s table later this season, when he does Studio’s production of Terminus by Mark O’Rowe.
Story says that “Michael Kahn has been encouraging me almost since he met me at Julliard 16 years ago. But I kept working as an actor and, honestly, when I decided to move to DC, I lined up so much work that there was not a chance to do it. And I was scared to do it. Then people started asking me to. Finally, you know, I thought, this is a thing I’ve been dreaming about, but I was scared to make the leap. I always knew at some point I would start to do it.”
Story took Joy Zinoman’s legendary class in directing at Studio the last time it was offered. (Also in that class was Holly Twyford, another actor who has begun to direct.) “That class was the most important thing in the last ten years, the most artistically important. I understood why people want to direct plays. It requires so many other uses of myself. I love it. It’s very different. I still love being an actor. I have different relationships to each thing.
“I love the release of acting — it’s some weird thing of publicly revealing something. It’s weird, it’s odd, but I enjoy that release. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge that, if I didn’t get it right tonight — you never stop working on it. I love that. I love to work things out. I love the social aspect of being an actor — meeting other people, having friends.
“I played piano when I was younger. It was so solitary — I knew that was not the art form I was going to pursue. I enjoy the social aspect of acting. Directing is very different. I love the cerebral requirement, all the things that actors don’t see, all the work that happens before rehearsals, setting up the world, all of the possibilities.
THE WOLFE TWINS
Closes November 2, 2014
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
Thursdays thru Sundays
“I think I thought that I would be driven more insane as an actor after directing, but in a way it has allowed me to let go of some things. I used to sort of try very hard not to take responsibility for everything, to trick myself by saying, ‘Just play your part.’ Now, I’m more easily able to do that. I know I’m not helping by worrying about the big picture. It’s a relief to let someone else worry about the big picture; it’s also a relief to be able to tell everyone what to do. I feel directing has made me more integrated as a person. I don’t feel so split. I feel more in control as an actor — I don’t have to get this right by myself. I have someone to help me shape it. But I’ve always responded to directors with really strong personalities — Joy, Michael, Rebecca Taichman.”
“I’ve never regretted it once,” Story responds when I ask him about making the move to DC. “I’ve only lived here officially for five years, but I was working here about seven years before that. I grew up here.” He told me that, while at Julliard, he hoped he was training to eventually join an acting company such as the ones he had witnessed growing up here, at Arena Stage, at Shakespeare Theatre. But “what they train you for doesn’t exist all the time. In New York, I thought, I’m not doing the thing I said I wanted to do, being challenged by transforming play to play, by that thing I grew up seeing Tana [Hicken] do, play five different characters in one season. Those companies don’t exist. I’ve been lucky to get work here that simulated that. I feel pretty well balanced with the stuff I get to do.”
Parting thoughts went back to his current project. “It’s an incredibly gifted group of people. The other three actors are really wonderful. The woman who plays my sister [Huppach] — she’s so alive, it feels so easy to be on stage with her. It’s all there. The director is incredibly sensitive, very subtle.
“I’ve learned tons from working with all of them.”