Noted film and stage actor David Strathairn, best known for his Academy Award-nominated performance as Edward R. Murrow in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck, is back in Philadelphia to head the cast of the Wilma Theater’s production of Leaving, the most recent work by Czech playwright, politician and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Václav Havel.
One of America’s most highly regarded character actors, Strathairn is associated with roles in the films of director John Sayles such as the baseball classic Eight Men Out and in recent action flicks like The Bourne Ultimatum, and says that his film and stage careers rarely conflict. “I’ve been lucky, and the two don’t really rub up against each other,” says Strathairn in a recent chat with PW, adding that theater was his first love.
Strathairn hasn’t been away from Philadelphia for too long, though; he performed in Nathan the Wise at Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company earlier this season. He's no stranger to the Wilma’s stage, either; Strathairn can count Leaving as his fourth production with the Wilma’s co-artistic director Jiri Zizka, and his second time performing the work of Havel under Zizka’s direction (the first being a 1989 off-Broadway staging of Temptation).
Leaving, which premiered in 2007 in Prague, was Václav Havel’s return to writing after a nearly two-decade absence. Those years of silence make sense if you know what was taking up the man’s time, though: Havel, a leader during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, was then chosen as what would turn out to be the last president of Czechoslovakia after the nonviolent overthrow of the nation’s communist government. After stepping down during the separation of the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic and remained in the post for the next decade.
Unsurprisingly, politics and their aftermath figure heavily in Leaving, which is having its English-language U.S. premiere at the Wilma.
Vilém Rieger (Strathairn), the former chancellor of an unnamed nation, is struggling to cope with his new status as a private citizen. Strathairn described Rieger as being “a bit resistant” to his new life away from the luxurious villa that serves as the chancellor’s residence: “A lot of the trappings of his life are leaving him. He’s getting on in years and he has to make a decision whether to work with the new government or be put out to pasture.”
Strathairn said he’s excited to reunite with Zizka and immerse himself in another Havel play. “I think it’s pretty special to do a play written by somebody who has been such a significant and influential political figure for many years,” Strathairn says. “It’s wonderful to have this politician who is also a playwright and such a creative thinker. I admire him, and it’s an honor to be involved in something that he created.”
Strathairn acknowledged that large-scale works like Leaving (which, in the Wilma’s production, features 15 actors, a disembodied voice bossing the players around, a massive set with 36 doors and a King Lear -like tempest) are increasingly rare in contemporary theater. “You’re fighting not only budget concerns, but also the reductive nature of television,” Strathairn explains. “I think, in general, television has whittled away at the public’s appreciation of spectacle and the sort of theatricality that the Wilma nurtures.”
An absurdist mix of shifting tones, the show combines genres and styles including tragedy, comedy, and absurdism and references Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Strathairn acknowledges Leaving is difficult to describe, and that some theatergoers may find it elusive, but doesn’t see how that’s a problem. “The audience may feel like they can’t quite put their finger on it, but I think that’s good. It keeps them on their toes.”
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