Acting up in class spawned an acting career

May 06, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Baltimore audiences have seen James J. Lawless play a Bulgarian army officer (in "Arms and the Man"), a blarneying pig farmer (in "A Moon for the Misbegotten"), and most recently Desdemona's irate father (in "Othello"). Now the distinguished-looking actor with twinkling blue eyes is playing an unbending, self-righteous clergyman.

That clergyman is Pastor Manders in Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts," which begins previews tonight at Center Stage, under the direction of Irene Lewis.

"It's a great stretch to play those roles," Lawless says of the diversified characters he has portrayed over the past two seasons at Center Stage.

Variety is a hallmark of Lawless' theatrical career, which has included eight seasons at the renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and, before his recent move to Virginia, seven seasons at the Denver Center Theatre Company. In Denver his roles ranged from Shakespeare's King Lear to Sheridan Whiteside in the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Lawless also has a steady career doing voice-overs, lending his "friendly authoritative" voice -- as it is described in the trade -- to products ranging from Ford to Pepsi.

But despite his extensive stage credits, "Ghosts" is only Lawless' second Ibsen play. (The first was "The Master Builder" more than 25 years ago at the Guthrie; he had a secondary role.)

In "Ghosts," Lawless' character, Pastor Manders, epitomizes the type of hidebound thinking that has led the play's heroine to turn her marriage and widowhood into a dangerous lie by covering up her husband's dissolute life.

Commenting on Lawless' casting, director Lewis says, "To have him doing a role like the pastor is like a breath of fresh air because he is not a stuffy autocratic cliche of an Ibsen character. There is always a fabulous life to Jimmy on stage -- humor, I think a great deal of charisma, warmth, and also an edge. . . . He doesn't necessarily play for sympathy with an audience."

Lawless' approach to this, or any, role is rather unconventional. "A lot of actors like to work from the inside out. I work from the outside in," he says. "I like to see if I can find a physical model."

In the case of Pastor Manders, his primary model is the accountant who handles his retirement fund. "He's got everything all buttoned up. There's an answer for everything. He's absolutely sure when he gives you advice that that's the right advice, and that's what Pastor Manders is," Lawless explains.

However, the actor has never met this accountant face to face -- only spoken to him over the phone. So he had to find an additional model to get a sense of the way the pastor might look and carry himself. He chose someone he didn't know, or even speak to -- "a businessman, well-dressed," whom he noticed while having lunch at Sfuzzi in the Inner Harbor.

The actor also uses another trick in preparing a role. "Whenever I deal with a play I don't know, I go right down to the college bookstore and read the Cliffs Notes," he confesses. But he doesn't necessarily abide by the Notes.

"The Cliffs Notes say Pastor Manders is the embodiment of evil. I don't believe that. I think he believes in what he says," Lawless says. "I was brought up Roman Catholic. You didn't miss Mass or you were going right to Hell. That's what Pastor Manders does -- he follows the doctrines of his religion."

Lawless, 58, grew up in the small Canadian town of Brockville, in eastern Ontario, where his father made false teeth. "My father to his dying day couldn't figure out how this happened to his family -- what they had done that God should do such a thing to them as to give them an actor," he says.

"I was put in my first play at 15 as a penalty for acting up in English class. [The teacher] said I could stay after school for a month or I could be in the play," he continues. "After the play ended the first night, the curtain went down and there was a muffled rumble and it went up again and they were all clapping and smiling, and what does a 15-year-old think? 'My God, I've done something right! I'm going to do this again!' "

Lawless spent three summers acting in summer stock, then majored in theater at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. After graduation he worked in radio and television for four years in Kansas City, doing everything from announcements to interviews and the weather.

Then, he says, "I woke up one day and, literally, the first thought I had when I opened my eyes, I said, 'This is not what I started out to do.' " He returned to summer stock, this time in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was planning to move to New York when he received a fellowship to a fledgling regional theater in Minneapolis -- the Guthrie.

Minneapolis remained his home base for 20 years, until his second wife, Sarah, became executive director of the Denver Center Theatre. He joined her in Virginia two years ago, after she became director of the Institute of the Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax.

Lawless commuted to Baltimore for Center Stage's production of "Othello" earlier this year, but Pastor Manders is such a large role, he's staying in town for "Ghosts." On his day off, however, it's not unusual for him to head to wherever the voice-over jobs take him. He spent a recent Monday making commercials in Washington; the next morning, he supplied the voice for Center Stage's ads for "Ghosts."

"I'm really a very lucky man," he says. "I've been allowed to do what I love to do all my adult life."

SEEING 'GHOSTS'

Where:Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays and 1 p.m. May 25. (Sign-interpreted performance 2 p.m. June 4; audio-described performance 2 p.m. June 5.) Through June 5

Tickets: $10-$35

9- Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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