Ithaca, N.Y. — If you’re a regular patron of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, you’ve probably seen a Neil LaBute play before. The Readers’ Theatre has performed several over the years, including “In a Forest Dark and Deep,” “Mercy Seat” and “Fat Pig.”
Next weekend at Cinemapolis, the Readers’ Theatre will perform LaBute’s one-man-play “Wrecks,” starring Chris Nickerson as recent widow Edward Carr.
What’s it about?
What makes this 80-minute play unique, though, is that it exists solely inside Carr’s head. Nickerson plays his stream of consciousness during his wife’s eulogy. This allows the playwright to subvert social conventions, giving his character leeway to say what he really means.
“I think the whole stream of consciousness writing is really fascinating, too, in this piece,” says Nickerson. “How he goes from one thing to another and his thoughts are just rolling and rolling and rolling. It’s full of commas.”
LaBute rationalizes the controversies in his script by making the central character an older widow. This allows the character, a heavy chain smoker, to continue his vices without reproval.
“It’s unusual, a play like this,” says director Anne Marie Cummings. “And I don’t think it gets done a lot, either. It takes a very committed actor.”
Months of commitment
Nickerson started preparing for this role more than two months ago.
“When I first came in for the audition, Anne Marie wasn’t sure about putting it on the schedule,” he said.
But as the Readers’ Theatre begins its fifth season, Cummings decided that she wanted to take a lot of risks, including presenting RTI’s first off-book play.
“When I saw him, ‘I was like, he can do it,’” Cummings said.
To help with the memorization, Cummings incorporated more rehearsals. While RTI averages 14 rehearsals per play, there are about 19 intense four-hour rehearsals to gear up for “Wrecks.”
“It’s really been about developing this character,” said Cummings. “It’s about this guy, and Chris is not like this guy at all.”
Focusing on physicality
Memorization isn’t the only challenge, says Nickerson.
Edward Carr is a successful business man and a heavy smoker. Chris Nickerson’s never smoked a day in his life.
To prepare, Nickerson and Cummings spent rehearsals sitting across from each other; Nickerson would mimic Cummings’ movements with a cigarette.
“Suddenly he went from someone who didn’t know how to hold a cigarette to within one week, he was a smoker,” said Cummings.
Because Cinemapolis doesn’t allow smoking within its premises, Nickerson has to pretend to smoke.
“It would have been easier for me if I could just start smoking, and then just do it when I started the play,” Nickerson said, “but to pretend smoke when I have never smoked, but not really smoke… I was really nervous because I don’t know how to smoke.”
That’s not the only challenge Nickerson faced.
“I’m naturally a very airy type of person, light on my feet, and we both felt that Ed was a more grounded person,” said Nickerson.
To deal with the physicalities of the play, Nickerson started wearing bright green three-pound weights on his ankles during rehearsals. He also started wearing a back brace, glasses, a suit and a tie to help him feel more confident and successful.
“Like he said, he’s a very airy person and he was just bouncing around,” said Cummings.
Since Nickerson doesn’t have to play off the energy of another actor in “Wrecks,” he could practice on his own.
“When she helps me with blocking, I can take it home,” Nickerson said.
Standing out from the crowd
Since the Readers’ Theatre is an independent not-for-profit, RTI doesn’t have to deal with commercial pressures when choosing its plays. Cummings said she chooses great plays that she can live with and talk about passionately.
“When I first read this play, I was just like, ‘What a beautiful love story. This is so unlike Neil LaBute. Where is this going?’” said Cummings. “And I got to the end, I was like… ‘He’s done it again!’”
That independent mentality’s like the central message of “Wrecks.”
“[Carr] lives the boundaries of exploring the views society thinks is acceptable and his heart’s desires,” Cummings said. “The message of this play is to do what you think, not what society thinks.”
What: “Wrecks” by Neil LaBute
When: Nov. 21 – 23, 2014
Where: Cinemapolis (http://www.cinemapolis.org)
Tickets: $10 Students/ $12 Adults http://www.thereaderstheatre.com/tickets.html
A 15-minute pre-recorded interview session with playwright Neil LaBute will be screened following each performance. Niles Gourmet owner Sandie Becker will be serving samples of her chocolate sweet potato ravioli with a brown butter sage in the lobby of Cinemapolis on Nov. 23.