When actors Kevin Murray and Mary Lechter take to the stage of the Harris Theater at George Mason University in Fairfax tonight, they will bring with them more than just the words and story created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz.
Baitz's two-person drama, "Three Hotels," which opens the 15th anniversary season of Theater of the First Amendment, is a stark, emotionally gripping trio of monologues exploring a marriage in crisis, framed against a backdrop of corporate malfeasance. Lechter and Murray are married, a bond that they and director Rick Davis hope will enhance the emotional resonance of their performance.
Murray plays Kenneth Hoyle, a onetime Peace Corps volunteer who has spent 20 years rising through the ranks of a company by selling defective baby formula in Third World markets -- a storyline based on actual events.
As we meet him, Hoyle is compelled to face his own treachery and recognize the consequences of forsaking his responsibility to himself, his family and the company's victims.
Lechter plays Barbara Hoyle, the very model of a loyal corporate wife and partner, whose brisk, sunny exterior masks a psychologically fragile and deeply disheartened woman.
"It's really helpful that we're married because these characters have to explore negative feelings toward each other, although they started out in a strong love relationship," Lechter said. "I can use that foundation of love, which is so easy for me to relate to, to develop this character and discover the reasons that she makes some of the choices that she does."
The couple, who live in Fairfax County, have been married for 11 years and are on the George Mason drama faculty. Murray also serves as managing director of Theater of the First Amendment, the professional, Actors' Equity Association company-in-residence at GMU. Lechter founded and manages A Class Act, a company that teaches acting to adults and children sponsored by the City of Fairfax Commission on the Arts. Both have stage, television and film credits.
The production of "Three Hotels" originated in a series of monthly play readings that Murray and Lechter stage at Old Town Hall in Fairfax, where they read Baitz's play.
"The audience loved it, they responded to it very strongly in a lot of different ways," Murray said. "A lot of different topics that came out of the play reading struck such a chord in people, and it wasn't always the same chord. People latched onto different aspects of the play and that made us think this is worthy of a full production."
With Theater of the First Amendment in a rebuilding mode after several years of financial challenges, a spare, two-person play was the right idea at the right time.
The play was written during an earlier wave of corporate scandals, and references to the Dalkon Shield, Union Carbide and Bhopal, India, have been replaced in the public consciousness by Enron, WorldCom and Martha Stewart. A mocking reference to "Bush" refers to Bush number 41, not the current president. But that's all fine with director Davis.
"I like history plays," he said. "This wasn't written as a history play, but it is one now. We didn't try to update the play because while the names may have changed, the issues remain relevant, and I think the reference to Bush works even better now than it did when the play was new."
Lechter and Murray don't actually share any stage time in what is a rare joint project for them. Rather, each one commands the stage alone. The monologues go beyond an audible presentation of the characters' inner lives as the actors engage the audience, re-creating memories and characters from their past.
The separate performances could have diminished the impact the couples' shared history brings to the effort, but Murray was pleased to see that didn't happen. They each watched the other during late rehearsals, and both experienced an emotional wallop.
"She had watched me do part one and then she had to go on and do part two, and she was obviously affected by what she had seen me do in part one," Murray said. "I watched her do part two and then I had to go on for part three, and now I had a whole different take on the scene, having watched her tell the wife's side of the story. The chemistry that normally happens 'in the moment' was not happening in the actual moment, but it was still happening, just in a different avenue."
Murray and Lechter said they primarily brainstormed on character development and back-stories for the characters over coffee on leisurely Sunday mornings and during other private moments. Actual performance, they both agree, is the province of the director. They concentrated on "actor homework, the kind of stuff the director doesn't want to know about, anyway," Lechter joked.
The title "Three Hotels" refers to three hotel rooms in far-flung locations where the characters attempt to reclaim their humanity. Each room adds a significant element of nuance, as the characters are affected by the world just outside their windows. Scenic designer Anne Gibson created the three rooms, each with a different ambiance.
Sights and sounds filter in from the outside. Scene changes occur rapidly, as set pieces are removed and new backdrops are flown in from above. It makes for an economical and fast-paced presentation that maintains a consistent energy level.
As the two actors engage the audience, pacing and emphasis may change based on audience response, although Lechter said their job is to maintain the integrity of the director's vision.
"It's not like a stand-up routine where you can go off text," she said. "But the audience members are our scene partners, for better or worse, and it will keep us on our toes as we respond to their response. I'm just hoping it will inform the story in a positive way."
"Three Hotels" runs through Oct. 2. George Mason University is at 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Half of the box office proceeds from the Sept. 29 performance will be donated to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Katrina relief.
For tickets, call 888-945-2468 or visit www.tickets.com. For information, visit www.gmu.edu/cfa.