They've been on the road for seven months, setting up housekeeping in hotels from Detroit to San Francisco and now Washington, another opening every month or so, another audience eight times a week. With two wardrobe trunks and a box full of knick-knacks from home to make things cozier, Barnard Hughes and his wife, Helen Stenborg, have taken the play "Da" and their seemingly unending enthusiasm for each new environment across the country.
"Is that Georgetown?" says Hughes, who has a face you recognize but are not sure if it's someone famous or an uncle you haven't seen for a few years.He's looking out the hotel window. "Is that Alexandria? Do you want my glasses on or off?" he asks the photographer."Oh, then I'll leave them on then . . . I haven't been in Washington much. Helen has. I was here with 'All Over Town,' which was trying out here, and we were rehearsing all day and performing at night. It was endless. Dustin Hoffman directed, and I remember he moved into the hotel I was staying in. 'I thought we could rehearse in the elevator,' he said to me."
The family -- their 20-year-old daughter, Laura, made her professional debut in the play at the Kennedy Center -- is more or less injured to the peculirities to travel.Hughes is asked if he has any tips for travelers.
"Stay home," he says, more because he knows it's a good line than because he believes it.
Laura, her mother says, has been staying in her own quarters rather than teaming up with Mom and Dad. "She's probably saved more money than either of us." Stenborg says. Well, Laura Hughes is asked, where has she been staying?
"Dumps," she says, with a deadpan to equal her father's.
This is a theater family.
Barnard Hughes, at 64, is in the enviable position of doing a play he loves and having a role that has won him universal admiration as well as awards; of being a secure and respected actor in an occupation that eats people up like orange peels in a garbage disposal, and of having a family that can work with him. He and his wife are both known as consummate professionals.
In a field that's known for its neurotics, they are known for being quite sane. That they have been married for 30 years (their anniversary is next week) and are both working actors is a source of inspiration for younger colleagues, who look to them as evidence that "it can be done."
He says it was mostly luck. She says that a sense of humor is essential, and that they learned early never to buy anything on credit.
Hughes did not come from a theatrical family -- unless you count being Irish and from New York. He became an actor at 19 when a friend tricked him into auditioning for a low-rent, traveling Shakespearean troup. The audition was really more of a matchmaking, because Hughes had been seriously flirting with the theater for a while, selling his textbooks to buy tickets to play but too shy to make the first move.
For his audtion, he recited Alexander Pope's "The Dying Christian."
". . . Oh death, where is thy sting." he demonstrated in ringing tones. For several years he stayed with the troupe, eventually playing "every role in 'The Taming of the Shrew' except Petruchio" and earning $2 a performance. The company was strictly low-budget -- they performed on country club golf courses with car headlights for light, in church basements and in parking lots, and were often transported via subway, carrying the papier-mache prop breastplates and spears under their arms.
"I'm the only one of the group who stayed in the business," he says. "Steve Roberts is a lawyer, Jane Erskine raises lovely plants and herbs with her husband, one fellow is a great businessman, and another became a chief inspector on the New York police force."
Since then, he's played perhaps 400 roles. He counted up 200 before he spent four years in the army in World War II, and figures there have been at least many since then. "Helen and I have been in at least 100 plays together," he figured, ruffling up his half-a-head of white hair. He played a pathetic homosexual in "Midnight Cowboy" and a loony patient in "Hospital"; he's been Falstaff in "Merry Wives of Windsor"; he's done Ibsen and Chekhov and Shaw ("Shaw is my idea of drudgery"), Neil Simon and countless "kitchen comedies." He's done television, live and un-live (he had a shortlived series, "Doc"), Broadway, off- and off-off-Broadway, summer and winter stock, soap operas, commercials, radio, tours, and musicals. He's had small parts, secondary parts and understudies; he's replaced leads and starred. From now on, he can probably star all he wants.
Now he no longer has to put shoe polish on his hair to play "character parts" -- the character he plays in "Da" ages from 50 to 83, but all he does is "hold my stomach in for one and let it out for the other.
"I remember an actor I worked with in stock - he had a name like Pennington Smyth, but it wasn't that, some thing like that. He was 90 years old, and every night he'd still do a complete, meticulous character makeup. He'd line every wrinkle, put all the shading in, shoepolish his hair . . . ."
"Da" was a part he wanted so much he took out an option on the play for a year and a half, until an off-Broadway producer wanted to do the play as a showcase with him. Originally produced in 1973 at the Olney Theater here, starring the late John McGiver, the play languished for several years until Hughes' agent gave it to him to read.
"It was Helen's idea to option it,: he says. "Now a lot of actors are doing it.
"Da" is about playwright Hugh leonard's father -- in Leonard's words, "an attempt to know him better and also to be a modest memorial to a man who, by the world's standards, was so insignificant that even the date on his gravestone was incorrect."
The play takes place in Ireland, and many of the scenes are based on true incidents.
Leonard wrote that "it was not until I saw Mr. Hughes playing the part for the first time that I realized what not one critic has ever said, and which is on the stage for all -- including myself -- to see: that in his entire life, my "da" never had one egotistical or self-serving thought."
Helen Stenborg plays the smaller role of "Mother," a part she read for but did not get in the Hudson Theater Guild production that was the off-Broadway rebirth of the play, which is still running in New York.
Her involvement with performing began when, as a child, she would recite poems with gestures and accents in proper elocutionary style. "I had one called "The Old Maid," she said. "There were three suitors and each one had a different accent. The last was Swedish -- I come from a Swedish family -- that one really knocked them out."
After she graduated from high school in Minnesota, she and her mother got on a train to New York City, the longest trip either of them had made, carrying a motley collection of bags, including an old trombone case packed with clothes. In New York, she was signed into the Barbizon Hotel for Women and started taking lessons from a teacher named Frances Robertson Duff. "She taught them things like how to pour tea in their dressing room and what to expect of their maid," Hughes says. "Not exactly up-to-date."
Stenborg and Hughes met in a production of a forgettable comedy called "Laff That Off" 33 years ago.
"I remember watching him at rehearsal the first day, and thinking that he was the best actor I'd ever seen. Then he didn't have a pencil and I practically fell over myself getting him one."
She has short gray hair and a face she frankly says never gave her any fear "about losing my good looks." When she was 30, they decided to have children (their son, Doug, an aspiring director, is now 24) and took several years off to be a full-time mother. "I never regretted that time," she says. "It gave me something; I was a much better actress when I went back to it full-time."
"And the children turned out beautifully!" says Hughes.
When Hughes committed himself about two years ago to the first production of "Da" off broadway, he had no idea if it would go anywhere. "I got $26 a week to do it, so it was really taking two months out of the year for my own satisfaction. But I figured, at least I will have done what I wanted to do."
The tour ends in 11 weeks, and Hughes is already looking ahead to 'the fall line." Joanne Woodward wants him to co-star in a production of Shaw's "Candida" with her, and he plans to spend some time in Los Angeles to pick up some film work. Helen works regularly with the respected Circle in the Square repertory theater in New York. But first, they will take a vacation in September, "taking advantage of the off-season rates."
It isn't just a sense of humor that has kept them going, she says, but a great deal of mutual respect.
"There isn't an actor in the world I would rather play a scene with than Barney," she says. "But I'm not terrified of him. I'm very opinionated and strong-minded."
"You old biddy," he says, teasing.
"I suppose it takes a great deal of gall to be in theater," he says. "They all talk about rejection so much. I've never felt rejected in my life. I've never been rejected for a part that I didn't walk away and say to myself, 'More fools they for not taking me.'"