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On Stage With ... Joy Johnson and Stephen Syfrett

Lewis Gordon (Stephen Syfrett) tries to talk his mother, Stella Gordon (JoyJohnson) out of money "Dividing the Estate" at Theatre Albany Feb. 3-13.

Lewis Gordon (Stephen Syfrett) tries to talk his mother, Stella Gordon (JoyJohnson) out of money "Dividing the Estate" at Theatre Albany Feb. 3-13.

ALBANY, Ga. -- It's early evening on a Tuesday, a little over a week before the curtain goes up at Theatre Albany on the opening-night performance this Thursday of Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate." It's dank and already dark as some of the actors trickle in a bit early before the start of rehearsal at 7 p.m.

After talking with Artistic Managing Director Mark Costello, who's pulling double duty as both director and actor in "Estate," two of the actors come sit down at the family dinner table on stage and talk about their take on the characters they are portraying.

Joy Johnson, who's appeared in another Foote play, "The Trip to Bountiful," at the theater and who last season portrayed 90-year-old Grace in "Grace and Glorie," plays Stella Gordon in "Estate." Stella is the 85-year-old matriarch of the Gordon family who is resisting her adult children's desires to sell the Texas cotton farm that has fallen on hard times. Costello's character, Bob, is Stella's son-in-law from Houston, who's trying to convince her to hire a good tax attorney to move parts of the estate over to her children in a way that would lessen the estate tax burden on her heirs.

With Johnson is Stephen Syfrett who brings Stella's ne'er-do-well son Lewis to life. Lewis has let alcohol destroy his life, making him incapable of keeping a job or meeting financial obligations, such as the $10,000 one he wants Stella to help him out with. Syfrett also has experience in a previous Foote play, portraying defense attorney Atticus Finch in Theatre Albany's presentation of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

As Costello introduces the pair, they show up in character. Not so much an interview, it's a conversation punctuated frequently with laughter.

MARK: This is the tax attorney I was talking to you about, Mama.

STEPHEN: Here, Mama, let me get your chair for you.

JOY: (sitting down as Syfrett holds the chair) Thank you, Lewis ... and you're still not getting any more money from the estate.

STEPHEN: But Mama!

JOY: I told you four times -- you're not getting any money from this estate. (Turning to the reporter) Do I have my Texas twang down fine?

ALBANY HERALD: Sounds pretty good to me. I'm not very good with accents anyway.

JOY: Well, I'm from Pittsburgh, so I gotta put it on a little bit.

STEPHEN: I think if we get anything Southern, it's going to be close.

HERALD: You're playing an 85-year-old woman?

JOY: Well, last year I played a 90-year-old, so I've kinda gotten younger this year.

HERALD: Have you already started looking next year for a part of a 70-year-old?

JOY: Maybe so. Except Mark insulted me last year. I told him, "How am I going to look 90?" And he said, "We're just sending you out without makeup."

HERALD: That was pretty cold.

JOY: It was cold, but it worked.

HERALD: Let me ask you, how are you approaching the character of Stella? It sounds like she's a pretty strong-willed Southern woman.

JOY: She's strong-willed. She seems to have selective memory. And I kind of bring in my mother and mother-in-law, because as they both got a little older, they both had selective hearing and they both had selective memory. And I adored them both, but it still was rather annoying.

HERALD: So you're trying to bring a level of annoyance?

JOY: She's a very strong-willed character. The interesting thing I find about his play, and I don't know if you'll agree with me, Stephen, is it's really a lot of nuances. It's not an in-your-face play. If you're over-dramatic with the characters, you lose the characters as far as I'm concerned.

STEPHEN: Yeah, that's one of the keys to this. We've got to present it realistically. We're not over-dramatizing. We're not trying to make it humorous overtly. The humor will be there. We've seen that. My first reading of it, I thought it was very, very dry ...

JOY: Me, too.

STEPHEN: ... It was, where is the humor that's supposed to be in this play? But as we worked through the nuances of the characters and what their history is, the family and how they've interacted with each other, all of that is where, I think, the humor comes from.

JOY: The honesty of our characters. And I think for me, it's one of the more difficult plays because it's not "out there."

HERALD: How do you know when you've got it just right?

JOY: Practice, practice, practice. I say my lines every day, and I say them in different ways each time and then when I come to rehearsal and I'm having a scene with Steve and he gives me a response, which then I change my response, even though I practiced it another way, just so we're in sync.

STEPHEN: We have a general idea of how we need to go with the lines at this point. But my read on the character now is almost entirely different than when we did the first read-through. There are the nuances that are coming in the play, the background we've developed for the characters. All of that has an effect on how the lines are delivered. And then the interaction between the characters. I have two sisters -- one older, one younger. So I have slightly different relationships with each of them. Not only because one is older than me and one is younger, but because they have different lifestyles. And my lifestyle and what's happened in my life affects the way I'm interpreting the lines.

HERALD: So, were you a middle child by any chance?

STEPHEN: Actually, I'm the youngest of two in my real family. I've got an older brother, but he's five years older than I am, so there was a lot of separation between us. He really and truly was a big brother.

HERALD: The character Lewis, I believe he's the one Mark was telling me ran into some money issues? Some gambling, that sort of thing?

STEPHEN: Lewis was a gambler, but I think more importantly, he is an alcoholic. He has a real problem with alcohol.

JOY: I think he's searching for love, too. Acceptance.

STEPHEN: Acceptance, yeah. He can probably find love anywhere ...

JOY: As long as he paid for it.

STEPHEN: Right. But it's the acceptance part of it. He's lived, in a lot of ways, a privileged life because the family, at one time, had money. And he got accustomed to that, just like the girls did. But his life went off in a different direction.

JOY: My character never thought anybody was good enough for you either, which is why you're single at your age, too.

STEPHEN: Any mom, you know, there's never any girl that's good enough for their boy.

JOY: I'm thrilled with the girl that married my son.

HERALD: Well, that theory went out pretty quickly.

STEPHEN: I guess so. But we are talking about reality here, Joy.

JOY: We are. We are.

STEPHEN: I guess the gambling debts he amassed, he couldn't cover those because he didn't have a job, couldn't hold a job. Which is probably related to the alcoholism that he's got. But the other issue is ... I haven't quite decided and I can't recall from the script because I haven't focused on it ... was he married previously?

JOY: No. ... When Mary Jo gives her long talk about nobody's ever been good enough for you, mama's never approved, I take you've never been married.

STEPHEN: OK, we'll go with that interpretation. That's Mama's interpretation.

JOY: And I'm very domineering, too.

STEPHEN: (Gestures toward Johnson) And she is.

HERALD: Have y'all ever seen a performance of this?

STEPHEN: No.

JOY: No. I've looked on the Internet, and we've seen pictures. Gerald McCraney played Steve's part and Elizabeth Ashley played my part on Broadway. We've just seen two or three pictures of them on stage.

STEPHEN: That was our only resource as far as trying to get a handle on some of the characters. Unfortunately, the script doesn't have a whole lot of direction. It's, "Here's the story."

JOY: I did "The Trip to Bountiful," which was Horton Foote also, and he just left it up to the person doing the portrayal as to how you saw that character. He didn't give much direction. But again, that's Mark's job and he's so good at it.

STEPHEN: That's a big factor here. Mark really has brought all of us to a better point in understanding the characters and presenting this, I think, more realistically.

JOY: He's making us stay real.

STEPHEN: Horton Foote wrote the screenplay of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

JOY: And Stephen played the lead in "To Kill A Mockingbird" when we did it.

HERALD: How many plays have y'all been in?

STEPHEN: This is my 10th. I've done about one a year since I started.

JOY: Me, too, since I've gotten involved.

STEPHEN: Early on I was doing two to three (a year) it seemed like. I was doing a lot.

JOY: Well, there are more parts for a nice young man like you. Not too many parts for, you know, Medicare people.

HERALD: When did each of you get interested in acting?

JOY: I was in my first play when I was in high school. It was "Tammy, Tell Me True" and I was Tammy. And then my next production was 10 years ago. I was in "The Trip to Bountiful" here. But my husband and my son were both in musical theater and I was the driver, the backstage person and I never thought about being on stage until I got here and Mark said, "Why don't you try out?" And I did. And here I am.

HERALD: What about you, Stephen?

STEPHEN: I had never been involved in acting, really. Well, I'm a ham. I was always the family clown, you know, but I had never really considered acting. I didn't think I would be able to get up in front of an audience and do something like that. But, as it turned out in Christmas of 2000 when we did "A Christmas Carol" -- when we just did it, if I had been able to be in it, it would have been like the 10th anniversary -- it was my first play. Mark, very graciously, gave me three roles. I was a gentleman, a businessman and I was part of the chorus. And it was a really good introduction to theater. I had some very fast costume changes. I was changing back here in the corner. I didn't have time to go upstairs.

JOY: I did that on "Golden Pond." I changed right outside the door.

STEPHEN: Really, it was kind of a fluke. My oldest daughter Cassie had been involved with the Peppermint Players and had done a few things, and she wanted to try to get a part in a Theatre Albany production. And "A Christmas Carol," she wanted to try out. She was not old enough to drive, and somebody had to bring her. I brought her down here and she was filling out the form and I said, "You know, I'm going to be down here every time she's got a rehearsal, so I think I'm going to fill out a form." So I did, and Mark gave me those three roles. That's what got me in. I guess the proverbial getting hooked. I got hooked.

JOY: And we do like the applause, I have to say. It's fun. We have a good time.

STEPHEN: It's an obligation. When you commit to it, you're not doing a whole lot else. Five nights a week we've got rehearsals.

JOY: And the rest of the time, you're learning your lines. People look at us in the cars. I play a tape in the car and I say everybody else's lines and leave mine blank, and so I'm sitting there at the traffic light and I'm going (makes motions) and people are looking at me, like who is this crazy person?

HERALD: You basically need to know everybody else's lines as well, don't you?

JOY: You've got to know your cue line, and you've got to be familiar with everybody else's lines because there have been instances when you have a brain freeze and if somebody doesn't give you your cue line, you've got to kind of incorporate their cue line into yours. Now they're younger than I am, so it doesn't happen to them as much as it does to me.

STEPHEN: I might argue that point. As a for-instance on that, in "To Kill A Mockingbird" the guy that was playing the role of Tom, it was during the trial scene and for whatever reason in one performance, where he was supposed to answer yes, he answered no. which took the dialogue in an entirely different direction and I tried to get him back, but he was adamant. That was crazy. We talked about that for a long time.

JOY: But you have to be so comfortable with your lines by the time the performance comes that if something like that does happen, you can do that.

STEPHEN: If you don't get your cue and then you freeze, then that's it. It's over. As Mark points out often, it's not just knowing the lines so that you can regurgitate those lines at the time that you're supposed to, it's knowing the intent behind the lines. It's just like the conversation we're having now. You ask a question and I come back with a response quickly.

JOY: The other important thing to remember is the audience doesn't have the book. They don't know you just skipped a page. And we've been in plays where a page has been skipped and you've had to go back and make it up and keep on going.

HERALD: And hopefully there's not a death scene on the skipped page.

STEPHEN: That would be a problem.

JOY: But you know, the audience is forgiving and we're all amateurs and we just love doing what we do, or we wouldn't give up this much time doing it.

HERALD: But how does it feel playing a role like Atticus that's so well known? Everybody's seen "Mockingbird."

STEPHEN: It was a challenge because you do have that, but I also used that to draw from.

JOY: But you made Atticus yours.

HERALD: That's what I was getting around to. How you make a character that is so iconic your character?

STEPHEN: By not trying to be the other person. Like in the instance of Atticus, people are prepared to see certain responses and certain behaviors. I don't speak the same way Gregory Peck spoke in "To Kill A Mockingbird." He didn't have a strong Southern accent in that movie. And I don't necessarily have a real strong Southern accent. I just tried to play it honestly. We had a fantastic cast for that. I think most of the plays have a great cast.

JOY: Mark is good at that. Sometimes when I hear who he has cast, I ask myself, "Why?" Then I see it and I think, "Wow."

"Dividing the Estate" opens at 8 p.m. Thursday at Theatre Albany.