Judith Ivey talks about Theater J’s ‘Our Suburb,’ Paul Newman and directing

November 19, 2013

As with many meet-cutes, actor-director Judith Ivey and Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth’s stories of how they came to work together do not exactly line up.

Ivey, the two-time Tony Award winner who is directing “Our Suburb” at Theater J, recalls sending an e-mail to about 25 regional theaters where she thought she’d like to work. The e-mail went out four years ago. “I said: I’m not just an actress. I’ve been directing, and I’d really like to be considered for projects in the future that you are considering for production. And Ari was one who reached back.”

Roth’s version: “I’ve known Judith’s work for 25 years. . . . She’s one of our great, great actors.” He saw Ivey’s performance in “The Lady With All the Answers,” a one-woman show about advice columnist Ann Landers, and friended her on Facebook. “We began, as they say, checking each other out,” he said, which is how Ivey wound up volunteering her time to do “The Lady With All The Answers” at Theater J’s benefit in 2012. “The best-selling benefit we’ve ever had,” Roth said. “And we just hit it off.”

“Our Suburb” got bumped back a season, Ivey remembered. “So I did ‘The Heiress’ on Broadway last year [and] said yes to doing ‘Our Suburb’ this season.” You know, just killing time on Broadway.

In addition to directing the play, Ivey will also participate in a Director’s Forum, Theater J’s version of “Inside the Actors Studio.” (Ivey will be the third interviewee, after Eleanor Holdridge and Shirley Serotsky.)

By her count, Ivey, 62, has been acting for 41 years in theater, film and television and has been directing for nearly half as long, although she said she’d never have considered directing if others hadn’t pushed her into it. “I never thought I could do it! I was encouraged by people to do it. They said I could see the big picture — not just my role in the play, but the whole thing.”

As for her directorial education, it probably didn’t hurt that Ivey had the good fortune to learn about the actor-to-
director transition from the handsomest man who ever handsomed. “My very first movie I ever did [“Harry & Son,” 1984], Paul Newman directed and starred in it. He really did rely on the actor. And he was a man of few words. I think because he himself was an actor, and he knew that he just needed a good verb. . . . [That] would be specific enough that it sent you in the right direction. He was a great listener. A great thinker. I felt fortunate that my very first movie really was with him.”

“The key is, when you have a great actor who becomes a director, you want them to lead with their strengths. And their strengths are communicating the depths and the joys of acting to her ensemble,” Roth said.

“What motivates me to direct is having a front-row seat to watch that: all these artists coming together,” Ivey said.

Ivey was drawn to Darrah Cloud’s script — a kind of hat-tip to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” — in part because she’s a Wilder fan. “I felt that it worked,” Ivey said. “I felt that she truly honored Wilder. And what he was trying to say in ‘Our Town,’ she was saying with equal fervor in ‘Our Suburb.’ I was intrigued: How do you put this on its feet, and does it work whether you know ‘Our Town’ or not? And I felt that it stood on its own . . . that it still had something to say.”

“Our Suburb” takes place in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, when Nazis organized a march on the town with the highest density of Holocaust survivors in the nation (one in six Jewish residents, to be exact). Two families, one Jewish and one Christian, are celebrating the holidays — in 1977, Christmas and Hanukkah overlapped — and two teenagers fall in love.

In the script, Ivey said, Cloud is saying, “This is 1977 — it’s when we start to discover, as Wilder reveals about a little town, it’s not all that safe, it’s not all that lovely. It’s got as many secrets and as many problems as a lot of other places. . . . Don’t kid yourself. There’s a dark side to everything.”

“This is ‘Our Town’ from a feminist perspective, about these women who . . . are working really hard to have a meaningful life while being ignored by their husbands and taking on social justice causes,” Roth said. “It’s fascinating. It’s sort of like ‘Mad Men’ from the perspective of just the female characters. . . . So it’s very important that Judith is a strong female artist, so she brings that sensibility to it.”

Ivey was born in Texas and grew up in the Midwest. Her father was “the go-to guy if you were building a community college” and, as a result, Ivey’s family moved around a lot. “I’m not an Army brat; I’m an education brat,” she said. “I always refer to myself as a Texan, but the truth is, I’ve lived in New York longer than I’ve lived anywhere.”

“Our Suburb” has a cast of nine — the largest Ivey has directed — all of whom are from the D.C. area. “Having been an actress who started in regional theater and left because I kept struggling to be cast in bigger and bigger parts, I left and came to New York because all the roles were cast out of New York. I’m very proud of the fact that I have a beautiful cast, all from the Washington area. What a talent pool! I’m just so impressed. I can’t sing people’s praises enough. And that’s really important to me: It’s important that we support our artists everywhere instead of being snobs about certain cities.”

“There was never talk for a second of, ‘let’s bring in this out-of-town designer or actor,’” Roth said. ‘She respects the local talent pool and creative team. She’s embraced it thoroughly.”

Dec. 19 to Jan. 12, 1529 16th St. NW, www.washingtondcjcc.
org/center-for-arts/theater-j
,
202-518-9400. Director’s Forum is Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

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