Backstage: For 'Heroes' With Flair, Take Three Actors and Season Richly

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The trio of seasoned Washington actors starring in "Heroes" at Alexandria's MetroStage might be having nearly as much fun as their audiences. There's no denying it's been work, fine-tuning the rhythms and cadences of Tom Stoppard's dialogue -- but Ralph Cosham, John Dow and Michael Tolaydo have relished it.

The British playwright translated and adapted French writer Gerald Sibleyras' play about three World War I vets living in an old soldiers' home in France, circa 1959. The comedy, with whiffs of the existential void a la "Waiting for Godot," runs through May 24.

"Old actors never die, they just get smaller parts," quips Cosham, 73, once a member of Arena Stage's long-ago resident company. "This is a chance to use the experience that we've built up over the years," he says.

Cosham plays Gustave, a cranky, much-decorated vet who has apparent shell shock and a fear of the outside world. "Don't tell the union about this, but we would come to rehearsal early . . . [and] we'd stay late," Cosham says. "We all just fell in love with this play. We just wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be. We really worked hard at it and I think it paid off. We're having the best time."

It was Tolaydo, recently at Theater J in "The Accident" and "Benedictus," who discovered the "Heroes" script on a trip to London. "I thought: Wow, this was a lovely little play," he recalls. He showed the script to MetroStage's Carolyn Griffin, who says she "absolutely loved it."

John Vreeke was hired to direct, but he wasn't as enamored of the script at first. It seemed "a little insignificant" to him. As he dug into it, though, he started realizing what they had in hand: "Stoppard's language, which is flawless and so musical and so beautiful."

After noting the "Godot" influences, Vreeke says he began seeing it "less in terms of absolute reality" and instead opted for a more poetic approach. Cosham and Tolaydo were cast first. "After John Dow came on board and we started having readings for the piece, it just sang," Vreeke says. "We spent a lot of time getting the language absolutely right."

And there were other challenges about having three characters onstage together all the time. "It's very funny and very poignant and touching, but you need to make sure the relationships are very clear," says Tolaydo, 62. He plays Henri, a naive, "glass half-full" sort of fellow with a bum leg. "Sometimes you don't say anything for a long time, but you're part of the conversation and you interject with something. . . . We wanted to create this idea that we knew each other really well," he says.

There was never much debate about trying to make the three men seem truly French, the actors and director agree. That's because "it was written with Stoppard's kind of flair," says Dow, 66, who plays Phillippe, a gentle fellow with shrapnel in his skull who tends to drop out of consciousness at odd intervals.

"There were so many British phrases in there, we thought the best thing to do was to go that way with it . . . three British guys in a French army hospital," says Dow, chuckling.

"We treated it like a British piece," says Vreeke. Cosham and Tolaydo have roots in England and South Africa, respectively, so they already sound British. Dow honed his vowels a bit to blend.

"What's so great about it is you have three men, each one distinctive," Tolaydo says of Henri, Gustave and Phillippe. "The play has received wonderful notices and wonderful response -- and not one character has been singled out as being better than the other."

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