'An extraordinary opportunity'

'An extraordinary opportunity'

URBANA — Since rehearsals began May 17 in Urbana for Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies' new play "Long Lost," he's trimmed 10 pages from his script.

He didn't make major changes — he cut lines here and there and re-arranged a few scenes.

Fortunately, the four-member cast has been "incredibly facile" at taking those revisions and running with them, he said.

In fact, after the first nine days, the actors were off book, meaning they had their lines memorized, said University of Illinois Swanlund Chair Professor Daniel Sullivan, who directs "Long Lost."

The play, which opens Wednesday night at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, is the sixth by Margulies that Sullivan has directed.

This time, though, their collaboration is part of Illinois Theatre's Sullivan Project, a unique program in which the Tony Award-winning theater director picks, for development at the UI, a new play or work-in-progress by a noted playwright, with Equity actors brought here to perform.

The Department of Theatre, headed by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, and Krannert Center provide technical support, and Swanlund Chair and other funds help pay for the project.

"Creating an artistic community of nationally respected theater professionals," Jenkins said, "is an extraordinary opportunity for our artists, students and audiences to engage with amazing talents as we explore a fascinating new work by one of our greatest playwrights. It is a rare, exciting moment for all of us."

Margulies' "Long Lost" tells of two middle-aged brothers who reunite after the older brother, Billy, is diagnosed with cancer. He hopes to stay with brother David and his family so he won't have to die alone.

Sullivan chose Kelly AuCoin to portray David. AuCoin has several TV credits, among them "Billions," "The Americans" and "House of Cards." Sullivan knew AuCoin, having directed him as Octavius Caesar in the 2005 hit Broadway revival of "Julius Caesar," starring Denzel Washington.

For the role of Billy, Margulies recommended David Alford, a Nashville actor who's moving to New York. Alford is best known as Bucky Dawes in the ABC series "Nashville."

Rounding out the cast are Kelly McAndrew ("Everybody's Fine," "In the Family" and "Appropriate Behaviour") as David's wife, Molly, and Michael Goldsmith ("Irrational Man," "Doctor Who" and "Gotham") as their son, Jeremy.

Unlike David and Billy, Margulies has a good relationship with his older brother; the play was inspired more by other friendships and brother-like relationships he's had, he told The News-Gazette after a rehearsal Sunday at Krannert.

"I think I was moved to write the play because I was considering what the limitations of charity are when you're dealing with personal history and responsibility. That became the theme for me as the play developed — it's sort of a musing on this theme of charity."

Sullivan said he knows several people who don't speak to their brothers or sisters.

"The relationships don't usually dry up," he said. "There's usually an offense someone can't get over. There's usually a deep anger at the core of it," the director said.

So it goes with "Long Lost," in which a "terrible event," as Margulies put it, haunts Billy and David's past and present.

The Sullivan Project will present the entire play — the Nashville Repertory Theatre, which had commissioned a play from Margulies, presented the first three scenes last year as part of its Ingram New Works Project.

At the time, Margulies was the playwright in-residence there.

"The reaction was terrific," he said, adding that the audience audibly expressed disappointment when told the play was "to be continued."

"Then Dan invited me to come here, which gave me the incentive to finish the play sooner than I would have," he said.

Margulies has made several visits to campus, starting with his first in March, when he and Sullivan spoke about their working relationship in an on-stage conversation at the Spurlock Museum.

The two said then they first met 18 years ago, when Sullivan directed the Margulies play, "Dinner with Friends," which went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The director said Margulies is among just a few playwrights with a strong visual sense — he once didn't like the color of the walls of the kitchen on a set for one of his plays so the crew repainted it.

Margulies actually has a bachelor's of fine arts degree in visual art but later decided to become a "starving playwright" rather than starving artist, though he continues to make art, mainly collage. Early in his career, Margulies wrote skits for Jerry Stiller and his comedy partner-wife, Anne Meara.

Sullivan said Margulies is the only writer he allows to speak independently to actors because he knows he and Margulies basically have the same thoughts about the play they're working on.

In turn, Margulies said Sullivan's ability to communicate with actors is unsurpassed.

"There's a spirit he brings into the room that most people don't get to see. When Dan is there and physically present, he's completely there."

Name that actor

Four familiar TV faces headline the cast of "Long Lost," coming this week to Krannert Center:


You know him as ... Dollar Bill Stearn in Showtime's "Billions" and Gary Stamper in Season 3 of "House of Cards."


You know him as ... Bucky Dawes, manager of Connie Britton's Rayna James on 68 episodes of ABC's "Nashville."


You know her as ... Leanne's mom from "Orange Is the New Black" and Deputy Minehart on an episode of "Law & Order: SVU."


You know him as ... Floyd from last season of Fox's "Gotham" and Roman Groom from 2009's "Doctor Who."

If you go

What: Illinois Theatre presents The Sullivan Project, featuring the new play "Long Lost."

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets: $25, adults; $24, senior citizens 65 or older or retired UI faculty/staff; $15, non-UI college students; $10, current UI students and youths high school age and younger.