"This is the best group of actors I've ever worked with," says Howard Witt, laying it on thick for younger cast members in Center Stage's big rehearsal room. Playing a sly old furniture appraiser in Arthur Miller's "The Price," Witt tries to count out some bills, but the stage money sticks together. A staffer promises to have it crinkled next time.
For Witt, the Baltimore run (Nov. 11-Dec. 12) is a homecoming of sorts -- just up Interstate 95 from Arena Stage, where he was a member of the resident company from 1968 to 1977.
"It was the most learning time of my life as an actor," says Witt. "I did some pretty good work there." He was with the company in 1973, when Arena co-founder and then-Artistic Director Zelda Fichandler took productions of "Inherit the Wind" and "Our Town" (he played Dr. Gibbs) to the Soviet Union.
These days the 72-year-old actor refers to playwright Miller by his first name. Witt was nominated for a Tony and numerous other awards for his turn as Willy Loman's neighbor Charley ("Nobody dast blame this man") in the now-legendary 1999 Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" with Brian Dennehy. He notes with anticipation that following a long hiatus, "Salesman" is to be revived for a London run.
In 1977, after doing more than 40 plays at Arena (a favorite was Elie Wiesel's "Zalmen or the Madness of God"), Witt moved to Los Angeles where he spent most of the 1980s doing guest roles in TV series. "I was putting three kids through college," he says, almost apologetically. "You live well, you get a nice car -- and forget."
Yet there was that call in 1984 from Robert Prosky, a colleague from the Arena years. He asked Witt to come to New York to understudy him in the role of hapless real estate salesman Shelly Levene in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" when the Steppenwolf Theatre production moved from Chicago to Broadway. "I was there the next day," Witt says. He played Shelly for 11 months after Prosky left.
In the early 1990s, Witt returned to New York and dived back into the world of regional theater. In 1993, he moved back to his native Chicago. He considered retiring, he says, but the Chicago Shakespeare Theater invited him to do "Troilus and Cressida." Then Robert Falls (who later directed "Salesman") asked him to be in "Three Sisters" at the Goodman Theatre.
A couple of years ago, after a preview of "The Time of Your Life," Witt had a heart attack on the drive home. He claims he had his last cigarette while waiting for the ambulance and gave up the role of Kit Carson to recuperate.
But whenever he thinks about retiring, Witt, says, "people keep offering me these great roles." Proof that character actors can work forever.
Born Into the Role
Janine Gulisano delves into a deep but relatively unexplored corner of her own life as Kim in "Miss Saigon," at Toby's Dinner Theatre through Nov. 21 in the first of two runs.
Gulisano was among the bui doi -- the children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women who were often rejected by Vietnamese society. A New Jersey couple named Loebs adopted the frail 6-month-old in 1973. They "had eight children the biological way, and they decided that they wanted to reach out and help one of these babies and that was me. So I was really lucky," Gulisano says. (The Loebses also adopted a Vietnamese brother and sister after Janine.)
"My parents always told me that I was adopted and that I flew over here on a plane and that it was a war-torn country and that my birth mother gave me up because she loved me," she recalls, adding, "I always felt kind of special."
When she auditioned for "Miss Saigon," Artistic Director Toby Orenstein "knew I was chomping at the bit to do that role. . . . My fear [was] that some cute little skinny thing that was 19 years old would take it all away from me," Gulisano said. She got the role, and some of her baby pictures are included in a photo montage of Vietnamese orphans in the second act. Sharing ties with Vietnam is Russell Sunday, who plays the GI who falls in love with Kim. He is the son of a Vietnam veteran and also is Gulisano's boyfriend.
Patterned on "Madame Butterfly," "Miss Saigon" traces the tragic romance between Chris and Kim, a naive prostitute. Three years after U.S. troops evacuate and Saigon falls, Kim and the 3-year-old son from their liaison are in Bangkok, where she hopes Chris will find her. When she learns that he has married, Kim offers their child up for adoption assuming Chris and his wife will take him, and kills herself.
Gulisano says she feared that the story might open a well of emotion in her and was holding back in certain scenes because of it. "I'm really afraid to be real about this, because I'm afraid I'm going to cry really hard," Gulisano says she told Orenstein.
"If you cry, it's got to be for the child, but you can't cry for you," Orenstein responded. They decided to dive into the well at one of the last run-throughs -- a pre-opening night catharsis. As the play reached its emotional climax, Gulisano says, "I let myself cry like a big baby and it was fine."
* Rep Stage in Columbia has canceled its production of Eric Houston's "Becoming Adele" due to "artistic differences between the playwright and Rep Stage management," according to a lawyered statement from the office of producer and Artistic Director Valerie Lash. Instead, the company will present actor Bill Largess in "St. Nicholas" by Conor McPherson, an acerbic reminiscence by a dissolute theater critic. The show opens Friday and runs through Nov. 21. Call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/repstage.
* Arena Stage will have a free "book club" Saturday after the matinee of "Anna in the Tropics." Svetlana Grenier of Georgetown University will discuss Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and the way it figures into Nilo Cruz's play about romance and betrayal in a 1920s Florida cigar factory. Visit www.arenastage.org.