A shared life, on and off the stage

Waterston, daughter play kin in `Much Ado'

July 26, 2004|By Blake Green | Blake Green,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Curtain calls are the order of the moment this sultry afternoon in Central Park. If ever there was Much Ado About Nothing, this could be it. But, just as the goal is to rehearse all of Shakespeare's dialogue until it's perfect, so, too, this time-honored theater tradition must be gotten just right.

A sea of empty green seats before them, the outdoor set's waving palm trees and columned footbridges behind, Leonato, distinguished governor of Messina, takes his bow; his daughter, nubile Hero, takes hers. Eyes and eyebrows as black as coal, their figures lithe, the actors playing these roles look enough alike to be father and daughter.

Which is exactly what Sam and Elisabeth Waterston are -- in real life, as well as in the Public Theater's current production, which runs through Aug. 8 at the Delacorte Theater. (Free tickets are available on the day of the performance. For information, call 212-539-8750 or visit www.publictheater.org.)

The bard's Sicilian-set comedy marks the first joint appearance onstage by the veteran actor and his oldest daughter. Elisabeth Waterston had a role in a Law & Order episode a few seasons ago, but her character never crossed paths with bushy-browed Jack McCoy, whom her father has played for a decade in the NBC series.

This time, complete with a full, going-gray beard, he gives her away in marriage. (He also disowns her, but -- to borrow another Shakespearean title -- all's well that ends well.)

Back in his salad days -- an astonishing 32 years ago -- Sam Waterston spent part of a summer in another production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park.

He played Benedick, the rambunctious romantic lead (Jimmy Smits this time around). That production moved to Broadway and was filmed for a TV movie.

"This play has been a big deal in our lives," says Sam Waterston, explaining that 1972 was the same summer he met Lynn Woodruff, who became his wife and the mother of Elisabeth, 27, and two more of his four children. Woodruff "came to that show a lot," and their children "grew up watching the tape ... learning the lines and saying them back to the television set."

"I was always drawn to Hero," says Elisabeth. "I had a great deal of sympathy for her."

"And for all people who are unjustly treated," injects her socially conscious father.

His sternness is only feigned. The Waterstons appear downright giddy at the opportunity to act together, a proud smile plastered on the father's craggy face as his daughter talks.

"There are great times and not-so-great times," Elisabeth says about her decision to follow in her father's footsteps. "But right now, it seems everything has always been dreamy."

Their casting "was a moment of pure inspiration," says director David Esbjornson. "The emotional connection the two of them have is wonderful."

Central to the plot of Much Ado is "the middle-class culture represented by the house of Leonato," he continues. "If you have something of that culture the audience recognizes and appreciates, you have a center for the play."

The onstage father-daughter attachment is something Sam Waterston says he hopes "would be there anyway: We're both professionals." But their link, he admits, is "certainly much more accessible."

In Much Ado, Waterston's three-piece suits are accessorized by spats and a straw bowler. This afternoon, his outfit includes a baseball cap and a T-shirt imprinted with Long Day's Journey Into Night.

It's a souvenir, he says, from another father-child adventure: Several Law & Order breaks ago, in an upstate production of Eugene O'Neill's classic, he played the father of his oldest son, James.

Although he made his reputation in classical theater, the 63- year-old actor hasn't appeared on the local stage since playing the title role in 1993's Abe Lincoln in Illinois at Lincoln Center. Measure for Measure, in 1976, was his last show in Central Park.

Asked why he hasn't appeared more on city stages, Waterston replies, "There are theaters outside of New York, you know. ... Life intervened, that's all. I love this place."

One continuing intervention has been what Waterston refers to as his "Lincoln stuff." He's portrayed the Civil War president a number of times, most recently this spring, when he re-enacted Lincoln's famous "right makes might" speech at Cooper Union, where Lincoln delivered it in 1860.

"Really awe-inspiring," is his daughter's critique of that performance.

As for the fictional character with whom he's most closely associated -- Manhattan assistant district attorney McCoy -- Waterston says, "I think he's affected me more than I've affected him."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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