Old-pro dad to ingenue daughter: 'Focus on what the character wants'

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mitchell Hébert has many reasons to be popping his buttons these days. The veteran Washington actor has just come off a nearly sold-out, well-reviewed run of Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park" at Woolly Mammoth. Now he's shifting gears from dark comedy to lighter-than-air entertainment as Phileas Fogg in Round House Theatre's "Around the World in 80 Days," adapted for the stage by Mark Brown, May 5-30.

Meanwhile, Hébert's 18-year-old daughter Emma, a jazz and contemporary dancer, has of late been adding acting to her tool kit and will enter the University of Maryland next fall in the theater department, where her dad is a faculty member. And while Hébert appears in "80 Days" at Round House Bethesda, Emma Lou Hébert will play Celimene in an all-student production of Molière's "The Misanthrope" at Round House Silver Spring, April 30-May 9. The production is Round House's eighth annual Sarah Play, a memorial to Sarah Metzger, who had been a Round House intern.

Emma remembers hanging out backstage since infancy while her dad rehearsed -- and being removed from the audience as a toddler when he played Salieri in "Amadeus" at Olney Theatre Center. Seeing him as a bad guy set her wailing. (Celeste Lawson, Mitchell's wife and Emma's mom, is also an actress-dancer, but these days runs the books for the blind project at the Library of Congress.)

Emma, a senior at Northwood High School and a full-time Round House intern this academic year, talks about the "in-car acting lessons" she's had from her dad. Using dance to express things has been easy, she explains, but "communicating with my body and adding words is a whole other layer. . . . [It] doesn't translate as easily as I thought it would."

During rehearsals for "The Misanthrope," she says, "I came home the other night, and I just said I feel stuck." Mitchell says he told her: "In the process of putting a play together, there are all kinds of high points and low points. It's part of the creative process. You take two steps forward and you take a step back." The shorthand version, Emma says, is: "Just breathe. Just listen. Just be present. Focus on what the character wants."

What Mitchell Hébert's grieving father in the first act of "Clybourne Park" wanted was to be left alone, though chaos reigned around him. He puts the just-ended "Clybourne Park" down, along with Round House's 2003 "Drawer Boy" and Woolly's 2005 "The Clean House" and 1992 "Kvetch" (when he saw someone "literally fall into the aisle" with laughter), as productions he'll treasure because audiences seemed so grateful for the "journey" on which the shows took them. With "Clybourne Park," which dissected in uproarious detail America's discomfiture with race, Mitchell says it wasn't until previews that the cast realized it would be something big. "Really, the whole first week, we were sort of stunned at the response," he says.

Starting rehearsals as the punctilious Phileas Fogg, notes the actor, "made me much sharper that night when I came in to do 'Clybourne Park.' Because Fogg is an exacting man. He's all about exactitude, precision. So when you start thinking that way all day long, you just can't help when you go in that night . . . to give that show an extra edge."

Still, Mitchell says the satisfaction he gets from acting and teaching takes a back seat to Emma. "My biggest concern for Emma is that she does something that she loves. I just don't worry about the steadiness aspect or the financial ramifications. I mean, I'm doing it. What kind of parent would I be to say, 'I'm doing it, but you shouldn't'?"

'Chess' pieces fall into place

Signature Theatre has announced the casting of three Broadway-vetted performers for "Chess." The company's revival of the 1988 Broadway show, with music by Abba's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson, will open Aug. 10. It's a Cold War saga of two chess prodigies -- one American, the other Russian -- and a romantic triangle involving Freddie's "chess second," Florence.

Jeremy Kushnier, who appeared at Signature in "The Rhythm Club" in 2000, will be among the stars. The actor originated the lead role of Ren McCormack in the 1998 Broadway premiere of "Footloose." He appeared on Broadway and on tour in "Rent" and has recently played Tommy DeVito in "Jersey Boys" in Chicago, Toronto, Las Vegas and on tour.

Euan Morton will also star. He's currently on Broadway in "Sondheim on Sondheim" and played Boy George in the musical "Taboo" in London and on Broadway, where he was nominated for a Tony and received a Theatre World Award. He took home an Obie in 2006 for his off-Broadway work in "Measure for Pleasure."

Jill Paice will play Florence. She starred at Signature in 2008 as the mother in the musical "Ace." Paice has appeared on Broadway in "The 39 Steps," "Curtains" and "The Woman in White." In London she originated the role of Scarlett O'Hara in the musical version of "Gone With the Wind."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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