An actor retires, Scene 1:
At Monday night’s Helen Hayes Awards, only one recipient among the dozens heard the swell of music from the orchestra murmuring, “Time’s up.” That was Rick Foucheux, a winner as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — the longtime D.C. actor’s third win in four years.
Thanking people and mildly reproving the peculiar number of winners arriving late to the Lincoln Theatre, Foucheux — who has said he’s stepping away from the stage — bantered with the conductor and coolly carried on a little longer. He seemed awfully comfortable up there.
“Retirement,” Scene 2:
Naturally, it’s “King Lear.” Big play, massive role, pinnacle of any actor’s career. Despite Foucheux’s stated plans, director Tom Prewitt purred in his ear about maybe taking a shot at Shakespeare’s masterpiece before completing his fade-out. It would be with Prewitt’s WSC Avant Bard, a respected non-Equity troupe known for smart stagings of classics and highbrow works on a budget. It would be in the cozy confines of the Gunston Arts Center, the converted Arlington school space.
Well … why not?
This pocket “Lear,” which begins Thursday, brings Foucheux full circle, back to his acting roots in the 1980s, before the city’s companies upgraded their rough stages and a unionized gloss became the norm. The cast includes old colleagues such as Christopher Henley as the Fool and Cam Magee — who appeared in “R.U.R.” at Woolly Mammoth with Foucheux in 1983 — as Gloucester.
“I haven’t been able to work with these guys for 20 years, so this is something of a reunion,” Foucheux says. “They didn’t turn Equity only because they didn’t want to. This closing night will be a celebration with guys I was working with when we were just pups.”
It sounds like a cozy grace note after a career that has featured everything from wacky new works to Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The consummate Washington actor not only has 13 Hayes nominations (with five wins, including two for David Mamet plays), they’ve come with eight different companies.
Foucheux may not be dropping the mic entirely. He’s 62, with a couple of years of union health insurance to bridge before retirement age. The days of booking coveted shows a year or so in advance, though, will wind down.
“I’m tired of working so damn hard,” Foucheux says over sandwiches in his woodsy Forest Glen house. His own paintings (mainly abstract) adorn the walls, and in his studio upstairs, he’s figuring out a piece that will visualize 30 years of nights on stage. He’s reflective and relaxed. He seems ready to explore a world elsewhere.
First, though, “Lear” — his second fling at the play this spring. Prewitt had directed Foucheux in the bizarro 2003 “Cooking With Elvis” in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, where the sexual shenanigans involving Foucheux’s Elvis impersonator had Prewitt fearing they’d get kicked out. After being paired for a reading of “Lear” at D.C.’s instructional Theatre Lab, they continued occasional lunches just to talk about the play.
“What forced my hand last year,” Prewitt says, “was the fact that Rick announced he was intending to retire.”
Foucheux was already slated to play Gloucester, Lear’s loyal friend and another troubled father, to Alan Wade’s Lear for a George Washington University production in March. Wade, whose performance marked his own retirement from GW after 40 years, seems to be speaking for his friend when he notes, “There’s no sense going off with something that wasn’t going to be a challenge.”
That’s sudden saturation for someone who had never particularly aimed toward Shakespeare’s daunting tragedy. “It wasn’t on my radar,” says Foucheux, who thought more about Falstaff.
Prewitt’s show will be fairly bare-bones, with costumes that Foucheux describes as “any time, any place.” The focus is the man in late-life crisis, deep family dysfunction, the near-madness and its relationship to power — “A la Nixon, or our current Master of the Universe,” Foucheux muses.
With Foucheux on board for this project, “There’s an immense amount of interest,” says Henley, WSC’s former artistic director and an actor who is semiretired himself. Henley and Foucheux chatted recently about the unrelenting aspects of the theatrical life: “Actors tend to be so ambitious in terms of wanting to do as much as they can, hating to turn something down,” Henley says. “But I’m sure it’s like this with politicians: When you’re part of that world, it just seems like you’re always going to be there, and nothing’s going to keep working without you. Then when you step back, it’s real different. Your attitudes get real different.”
The Foucheux story features a tense intermission in the 1990s, when he quit for four years out of frustration. He vividly describes a blowup at home and packing an overnight bag: “How dramatic was that?” he says mildly, as if removed from it now by a thousand miles. He came back to acting casually and with more of a “This could be fun” attitude. His deep, crisp voice and middle-aged persona suddenly seemed right for roles all over town.
He clowned at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in “Twelfth Night” and “The Government Inspector” and at Woolly Mammoth in “Heaven,” playing a crusty detective whose true nature is a funk-disco singer: “I believe in miracles,” he now croons over his sandwich, recalling the absurdity and nailing the notes of the 1970s Hot Chocolate hit “You Sexy Thing.” He was the original dead man in Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” soloed at Arena Stage in “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” played Sigmund Freud, Bernie Madoff and “Odd Couple” grouch Oscar Madison at Theater J. He featured in acclaimed ensembles, ranging from Aaron Posner’s Chekhov ramble “Stupid F-ing Bird” to Richard Nelson’s stately Apple Family plays at Studio Theatre.
He even gave New York a shot for a credit card-sapping eight months, right after playing Willy Loman at Arena; nothing substantial materialized. “It was long enough for me to know,” he says of his gambit at a payday in commercials or TV. “But I really did have to get that out of my system. I always would have wondered.”
Foucheux actually started out in TV, coming to Washington to anchor a morning show in the early 1980s. That gig lasted a year.
“When I’m Willy Loman or Lear or Malvolio, I can make myself believe I’m Willy Loman or Lear or Malvolio,” Foucheux says. “I can’t make myself believe that I’m some erudite guy in a necktie with a sport coat on.”
His favorites have been modern American classics — Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. He only had one crack at Albee, playing a supporting role in “The Goat” at Arena.
“Gotta figure that stuff out, man,” he says of Albee’s cryptograms. “If Shakespeare is all on the page, Albee is almost all under the page.”
On O’Neill: “I really respond to him, really understand him — his people, his language.” Foucheux was part of an exquisite “Ah, Wilderness!” at Arena, and he played the rambling salesman Erie Smith in “Hughie” for Washington Stage Guild. “I knew exactly who that guy was,” he says of Erie, describing a crying jag one rehearsal when he got all the way inside Erie’s isolation. With his particular gift for gravity and irony, you can imagine the O’Neill roles Foucheux might yet play.
But he’s got other things to do: reading, painting, traveling with his wife, M.J. Jacobsen. He’s not the acting equivalent of a gym rat who adores rehearsal. Driving to work is exactly like driving to work. “Still: When I know my lines, and I’m well rehearsed, and I’m confident in the material, and I feel like I’ve got something to offer,” he says, “it’s better than almost anything else.”
He has talked about retirement with his friend Ted van Griethuysen, an actor who quite notably has not retired. Van Griethuysen is currently starring in “The Father” at Studio Theatre, and was presented with a career tribute during the Hayes Awards by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Ted’s exactly 20 years older than me, and in the last 20 years, he’s given some amazing performances,” Foucheux says. “He’s given me reason to wonder if I’ll be singing the same tune two years or five years from now. But I can’t worry about that. I want to have some time to myself while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.”
King Lear , by William Shakespeare. May 25-June 25 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Tickets: $30-$35. Call 703-418-4808 or visit wscavantbard.org.