Ralph Waite's role as an aging father is close to his heart 'Dirt' Farmer

October 30, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Norfolk, Va. -- In real life, Ralph Waite has been a minister, a social worker and a congressional candidate. But he is best known as a fictitious farmer -- Papa Walton on the long-running television series.

Waite has played so many farmers, in fact, he might have been expected to turn down the chance to play yet one more. But the farmer in "Dirt" is different, says the affable actor over lunch in Norfolk, where the play was recently being performed by the Virginia Stage Company.

"I really have a connection to this play that I haven't had in many years," he says. "It's a much deeper and broader [role] than any other farmer I've played. It's the only contemporary play I've read for many, many years that has such breadth."

Baltimore audiences will be able to judge for themselves starting Tuesday, when "Dirt" begins a three-week run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Waite laughs at the predictability of his casting, and sure enough, during lunch he is interrupted twice by women complimenting him on "The Waltons."

The play, written by an actor-playwright named Bruce Gooch, focuses on a recently widowed elderly farmer named Sonny Hardman (Waite), whose estranged son returns home after learning that his father's mind is beginning to falter.

The play's breadth manifests itself in themes such as the conflict between fathers and sons, the relationship to the land, and, in particular, coping with aging.

"I think I'm using probably more of myself in this than I've used in most things. I'm in my 60s, and people as they get older have to come to terms with getting older," says the visibly hearty Waite, who is 66.

"I think one of the paramount things I've had to learn myself, going through my own kind of inner struggle to come to terms with aging, is the sense that I've always lived aiming towards some goal in my career, and I've always kind of thought of things as aiming somewhere, and one day you wake up and realize: 'Wait a minute. That no longer can be. Whatever future you have is right now.' "

When Waite was was offered the part in "Dirt," he was eager to do it but was committed to doing a Hallmark Hall of Fame special called "Lemon Grove." Realizing this would only leave a week and a half after filming to rehearse "Dirt," he hired another actor and worked with him on Sonny's lines every night after they finished shooting. By the time he got to Norfolk, Waite had the role memorized.

Playwright Gooch was impressed. "Ralph's mouth fits around these words beautifully," he notes. Gooch also recognizes the connection Waite feels to the role. "I knew in two pages that he understood this man. I went, 'This is very right,' and it's only gotten better and better and better."

While participating in an audience discussion after a preview performance in Norfolk, Waite was asked if he'd prepared by researching Alzheimer's disease. The play, he replied, "is not about Alzheimer's. It's about the inevitability of getting old."

Growing old, however, is a relatively new subject in the Waite family history. "Most of the people in my family always died young. We have a long history of alcoholism in my family, and I'm the first one in a long, long time to go past 50," he says. "I had a problem with [alcoholism], and luckily I was able to begin to deal with it in my early 40s."

Waite, who has been sober for 22 years, credits much of his sobriety to his involvement in a support group. But he also credits "The Waltons."

Although he played the archetypal father figure on the popular '70s TV series, Waite was actually a divorced father at the time who, by his own account, "left and went out on this kind of abandoned life of acting in New York and drinking all the time and not caring about anything else.

" 'The Waltons' came along at a very important moment," he says. "All those values that I had lost were resurrected. Here I was playing a father . . . with all these children, and a loving, responsible father, and I was drinking when it started, and I couldn't stand it. [The show] helped me, I think, finally break that cycle of destruction and begin that long road to learn how to live sober."

Now happily married to his third wife, Waite says he and his siblings "have broken the family cycle of alcoholism in this generation."

Born in White Plains, N.Y., the son of a construction engineer, Waite became a surrogate father early. After his parents died in their 40s, he raised his four younger siblings, three of whom were younger than 10.

He then drifted into another type of surrogate fatherhood -- the ministry. After graduating from Bucknell University with a degree in philosophy, Waite became a social worker, then entered Yale University to study with a theologian he admired. That led to a degree in divinity and his ordination as a minister in the United Church of Christ.

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