Backstage: Actor-Director Jerry Whiddon Is Keeping Busy

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jerry Whiddon the director just staged "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which opened Monday at Round House Theatre.

Jerry Whiddon the actor is a contender for a Helen Hayes Award at Monday's 25th-anniversary gala -- the Robert Prosky Award for outstanding lead actor in a resident play. Whiddon was nominated for his performance in the dark drama "Blackbird" at Studio Theatre. He played a man confronted by a young woman he had an affair with years earlier, when he was 40 and she was 12.

The role marks Whiddon's return to acting for the first time in nearly three years. In 2005, Whiddon, 61, stepped down after 20 years as Round House artistic director, saying he planned to act, direct and produce: "I'm not done. I still feel I'm a work in progress," he said at the time.

But in 2006, a bout of atrial fibrillation brought on a mild stroke, and though he's now completely well -- "I was a really lucky person, it just came and went," he says -- Whiddon was leery of jumping onstage and plumbing his emotional depths. "I just didn't feel like taxing myself in that way. . . . I could pay a whole lot more attention to directing, which I fell in love with again after 'Orson's Shadow.' "

Whiddon staged that comedy at Round House in early 2007. He staged "Speed-the-Plow" at Theater J that fall, and "Nixon's Nixon" at Round House last spring. He also directed at the University of Maryland and recently did "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" at Adventure Theatre and says he "had the best time" revisiting children's theater.

Though Whiddon wasn't looking for acting gigs, he felt ready when "Blackbird" came along. "I knew that my health was fine. I could get back to acting any time I wanted to," he says. And surely, playing Ray, the man in Scottish dramatist David Harrower's play, presented nearly every physical and emotional challenge an actor could seek.

"The fact of doing a guy who, when he was 40, had an affair with a 12-year-old . . . that was the challenge that as an actor you kind of gravitate toward.

"Some audience members said, 'I didn't believe a word you said. I think you are still a bad person,' " he recalls. "It became a struggle in a good way. It became the struggle that I have always looked for -- trying to at least believe yourself when you say something, when you know that nobody's believing you."

Whiddon believes his just-opened "Cuckoo's Nest" (the play by Dale Wasserman, based on Ken Kesey's novel), though set in the 1960s, still resonates: "That whole thing about order versus disorder, control and security versus freedom, the individual versus the state, are all in play in our lives now."

Whiddon is directing the Helen Hayes Awards gala on Monday and will play Trigorin in Theater J's upcoming "The Seagull on 16th Street," adapted by Ari Roth from Chekhov's play. It opens June 17. Next fall, he'll stage Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" at Theater J.

Follow Spots

-- In a bow to the economy, Olney Theatre Center has made changes to its 2009 subscription series and summer offerings. In the theater's announcement, Artistic Director Jim Petosa says the company will "cut expenses" but "not compromise excellence." The vintage play "Waste" by Harley Granville-Barker will be replaced with a solo show, "A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow," starring Paul Morella as the fabled lawyer, to run Aug. 12-Sept. 6. The rock musical "Two Gentlemen of Verona" will be dropped in favor of "Ain't Misbehavin'," to run July 7-Aug. 2. "As You Like It" (May 8-9) and "Much Ado About Nothing (Aug. 28-29) will replace "The Taming of the Shrew" as free alfresco Shakespeares.

-- At the Helen Hayes Awards gala Monday at the Warner Theatre, the annual Helen Hayes Tribute will not go to an individual (past recipients have included Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury) but instead to "Artistic Directors of Washington's Professional Theatres." The Helen Hayes organization will salute "those who dedicate every day of their lives to creating exceptional theatre."

-- "Glory Days" may have a new life in Japan. The musical by composer-lyricist Nick Blaemire and writer James Gardiner, which premiered at Signature Theatre last year, then opened and closed in a single night on Broadway in May, will be performed in Tokyo by a Japanese band, AAA (Attack All Around). It will run June 11-25 at the Shinjuku Face venue.

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