“You have to ‘Coward’ it,” Valerie Leonard said to me, as she considered the fine art of acting in the very distinctive plays of Noël Coward.
I had begun our conversation by asking Leonard if she was a Coward aficionado. “I’m not an aficionado, but I understand the style a bit,” she responded, humbly. “What I have realized, working on this piece, I’ve become very aware of the lightness that’s needed. Oddly enough, if you parse this play and think about what’s going on emotionally,” she continued, it can feel the same as when working on a play by Eugene O’Neill.
However, once Leonard has established the foundation that undergirds the comedy of manners, she puts “Coward on top. It’s a really fine ride, of being real and not. You have to ‘Coward’ it, rise above it. It’s a delicate way of acting it. If you put anything heavy on it, it will fall.”
If our house is any indicator, there’s a lot of sneezing going on these days, so it feels like the perfect time for Olney Theatre Center to revive Coward’s Hay Fever. This production will be Leonard’s second foray into Coward, as she has previously acted in a production of his Private Lives. In Hay Fever, Leonard plays the head of an eccentric, artistic family who invite guests for a weekend in the country.
Referring to Jason Loewith, Olney’s Artistic Director, Leonard told me that “Jason said something very interesting the first day. (I love this.) He always does a classic, and this is a play he has always loved. He said that people think the family are horrible, in a way. But instead of thinking of them as crazy, horrible people, the play is a celebration of the artistic spirit. The play shows how free that spirit is — and how the outside world has a hard time dealing with that artistic spirit. We run with that through the whole show. That’s what we’re attempting to show.”
Leonard also made the case for the play as having a special place in the Coward oeuvre. Her research revealed that Coward had written it in just three days after spending time with the family of Laurette Taylor, the stage star from the early part of the last century who is best-remembered for having originated the role of Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Coward observed her and her family as they engaged in “knock-down, drag-out fights.” In hopes of deepening the comedies for which he had become known, plays renowned for their sparkling repartee, Coward wanted to delve deeper: “He said, ‘I’m in a transition period, not just writing witty lines, but trying to deal with relationships.’”
That said, Leonard acknowledges that the play “is froth, delightful, light. Yes, it’s a period piece, but it’s about the joy of creation, and family, and loving what you are doing, following your bliss. And that’s very appropriate for people today. So many people don’t follow their bliss.”
As Leonard and her colleagues open a 90-year-old play, it may seem out-of-synch with the rest of the D.C. scene, which is in the beginning weeks of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. However, close on the heels of the scheduled close of Hay Fever, Olney will open Bad Dog, part of that festival geared toward increasing the representation on our stages of women writers.
Hay Fever, however, might be said to compliment the festival, as it is directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Women are as strikingly under-represented behind the director’s table as they are behind the keyboard, and it is intriguing to consider what the perspective of a woman director might have on the work of a playwright who could be seen as the poster boy for a patriarchal and imperialist establishment against which the successor generation of British playwrights (the “angry young men”) rebelled.
September 2 – October 4, 2015
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $65
Leonard didn’t take me up on my invitation to draw any sweeping generalizations about how the gender of a director might affect the work, but she did make a few specific observations. “I usually work with male directors. The women have been few and far between, other than Molly [Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage.] I adore working with Eleanor and being able to talk to her about aging as a woman. Men don’t get that at all.” Additionally, she noted that, with Holdridge at the helm, “love of family is very present in our piece.”
This is Leonard’s first full production with Holdridge directing, although they did a reading together previously. Working with Holdridge is “very easy, very collaborative. She’s brought a great cast together.” Other familiar faces in the cast are Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey, Jon Hudson Odom, Beth Hylton, and Chris Dinolfo. “We’ve had a fabulous time collaborating.”
Our conversation occurred the morning after the first preview. Leonard was slightly self-deprecating as she began her assessment of how it went: “Well, we didn’t fall down! No. It’s frothy and fun. It looks beautiful. It bubbles, like champagne. The audience is beaming.”
The play is written in three acts, but “we’re doing it in two. Coward’s instructions were, ‘Talk as fast as you can, don’t let the audience get ahead of you. Then, in the third act, you can take as long as you want, because you’ve earned it.’ And he’s written it that way. It’s very, very funny.” The Olney production clocks in at two hours, fifteen minutes, including intermission.
It was Olney and its longtime (now former) Artistic Director Jim Petosa who lured Leonard to our area. “I lived in New York for twenty years. I met Jim at an audition; I can’t remember for what play. We hit it off really well, but he had already cast the part that I was right for. A year-and-a-half later, I get a call out of the blue. ‘Remember me?’ He had to replace Mrs. Kendall in The Elephant Man in 1990. ‘Can you come down and learn the part in three days?’ ‘Sure!’” That production (which featured John Lescault, Helen Hedman, James Slaughter, John Neville-Andrews, and a very young Bruce Nelson in the title role) began a long and “really cheerful” relationship with Petosa and Olney.
There followed a decade of commuting from her New York base to do plays at Olney, such as Shadowlands and The Night of the Iguana, until Leonard made the move to this area in 2001. “I was happier than I’d ever been in New York. I was doing a show, teaching, I had a great part-time job at a travel agency. I came down to do a show and Jim said to me, ‘Just move down here. You should think about it. You’ll always work.’”
Leonard was playing Ruth in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (for Potomac Theatre Project, then in residence at Olney) and she made herself a bargain. (“It’s a weird, stupid story.”) A season earlier, she had played the title role in Therese Raquin. “I said, ‘If I get nominated, I’ll move down.’ I did [get nominated, for Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Play, at the 2001 Helen Hayes Awards] and so I thought, ‘I have to move now.’ In two weeks, I packed up and moved down. It was a month before 9/11. I was going to go back. But I met Nigel and now I’m here. Love wins all.” Nigel is her husband, Helen Hayes award-winning actor Nigel Reed.
Chez Leonard/Reed is Columbia, which is convenient to Olney, whereat Leonard is “very proud of being an Associated Artist.” Does she miss New York? “The only thing I miss about New York is being able to walk places.”
Any dream parts she would like to play? “Lady M is still on my bucket list. I need to do Lady M. And I’m desperate to do a contemporary play.” And when was the last time she did a contemporary play? “I have no idea. I can’t even think of one I’ve done recently. You can’t call Pinter contemporary anymore. I’ve not done a contemporary play in decades.”
Back in the 1990s, I saw the Broadway run of Peter Hall’s production of Oscar Wilde’s play An Ideal Husband. In the cast was Leonard, who I recognized from her work at Olney. I asked if that was her only appearance on The Great White Way. “That was my only Broadway show, but it was a good one. Nine months of a straight play on Broadway? That’s not heard of.”
The bulk of that cast was British, with other parts filled by U.S. actors when the long-running West End production transferred to New York. “They had done it for three years in England and the cast came over, and those people are so frickin’ cool.” Remembering how the Brits welcomed the Americans to the cast, Leonard recalled that “All the English were in the wings, cheering us on. They were so spectacular, so warm, so giving.”
With that, our conversation ended, until I sent her an email requesting a headshot to accompany this article. The image arrived with a gracious note, and with a PS, which reminded me of her devotion to the cause of animal rights and needs:
“P.S.: Will we see your lovely family at Beltway Barks this year? September 19, CityCenterDC!”