John Astin seeks to open eyes to theater

THEATER

October 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At age 73, John Astin has a new career - and it's at his alma mater, back in the town where he was born.

Still best known as Gomez Addams, the role he played on ABC's The Addams Family four decades ago, Astin began his career as an actor on and off Broadway. In more recent years he's also been directing, as well as touring his one-man show, Edgar Allan Poe - Once upon a midnight...

Beginning tomorrow night, local audiences will be able to see him play the role of the Stage Manager in a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, under his direction. What's new is that now he's also teaching. Our Town features a half dozen of his students from Johns Hopkins University, where he is attempting to resuscitate the drama department from which he graduated in 1952.

"This is a great university. But without a broad perspective. Without, let's say, an opening of the eyes, we make more foolish decisions than we would make otherwise, and a broadening of education is critical in the long run to our survival as a human species," Astin said last week at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Our Town opens this weekend, before continuing its run at Theatre Hopkins' Merrick Barn.

Astin began serving as Visiting Professor of Theatre Arts at Hopkins in spring 2001 at the invitation of poet and Hopkins professor John Irwin. Expecting to attract about 15 students to his acting and directing workshop, he ended up with 54. This fall, he's teaching four courses and has two teaching assistants and more than 60 students. Hopkins students can now minor in drama, "and a major is not far off," he predicts.

Last spring, Astin established the Hopkins Studio Players, which he hopes will evolve into a permanent acting company, mixing student actors with professionals, as he is doing in Our Town. Co-produced with Theatre Hopkins, the show co-stars Kateri Chambers, a sophomore, as Emily Webb, and Loren Dunn, a senior, as George Gibbs.

Astin's connections with Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play extend beyond Hopkins, however. He first saw a production of Our Town as a college student, when he hitchhiked to Wooster, Ohio, where Wilder himself was starring as the Stage Manager. "He was very, very good in the part," recalls Astin.

Revisiting Our Town a half century later, he remains influenced by Wilder's intentions and performance. As a director, he says his sole focus is "to service Thornton Wilder's play." As an actor, his focus is "to draw the audience into this play and into these people, and I think that's what Wilder intends. ... Wilder has a world view that includes life, death, all that we do and are. I think he plants this view in the Stage Manager, and it's a great way of keeping sentimentality out of a very moving play."

Astin also has a connection with the BMA, which is presenting the opening weekend of the run as part of what he describes as an effort "to intensify or deepen the relationship between Hopkins and the museum." It was at the museum, when he was a college student, that Astin performed in his first full-length play - a production of Macbeth in which he played the First Murderer.

So when Astin's Stage Manager welcomes the audience to the fictitious town of Grover's Corners tomorrow night, it will be a homecoming for him on several fronts. And, it will give theatergoers a look at the type of work that can emerge from a theater program at Hopkins.

Astin realizes, of course, that not all, or even most, of his students will go on to professions in the theater. But he firmly believes that studying acting can be an important part of a well-rounded education.

"The kind of acting I teach also helps open up perspective. It can be an aid to introspection. It can be an aid to sharing with others and becoming aware of other ways, other cultures and also the commonality that we share," he says. "Hopkins is in real need, I think, of humanizing. The world is in need of humanizing."

Our Town will be presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. For more information, call 410- 396-6001. It will continue at the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University Oct. 24-Nov. 9; show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 410-516-7159. Tickets at both venues are $15.

A peek at `The Miser'

As part of First Look, Center Stage's occasional series of staged readings, the theater will present a reading of associate dramaturg James Magruder's new translation and adaptation of Moliere's The Miser at 8 p.m. Monday.

The reading will be directed by former Baltimorean David Schweizer, who directed And God Created Great Whales at Center Stage two seasons ago and who will direct the full production of Magruder's Miser adaptation at the theater in January.

Tickets to the reading, to be held in the Head Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., are free, but reservations are requested. Call 410-332-0033.

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