In Mark O’Rowe’s play, Terminus, at the Magic Theatre, three unnamed characters, A, B, and C tell their interlocking, dark and poetic stories of a night in Dublin– Stacy Ross as A, a teacher turned suicide hotline volunteer who tries to help a former student; Marissa Keltie as B, who goes to meet some friends and ends up at a construction site where she gets betrayed; and Carl Lumbly as a man who makes a deal with the devil to overcome his painful shyness, particularly with women.
The play and the actors have gotten excellent reviews as spellbinding, compelling and brilliant. Bay Area director Jon Tracy said he needed to find the right actors to make Terminus work, and he immediately thought of Lumbly, who has also done a lot of work in TV (Cagney and Lacey, Alias, Southland) and movies (Everybody’s All-American, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Pacific Heights, To Sleep With Anger). The actor talks about the muscularity of O’Rowe’s writing, how rejection can twist people up, and bargains with the devil.
Were you familiar with Mark O’Rowe’s work?
I saw the script, and afterward I read Howie the Rookie and Crestfall –both of them are quite incredible pieces. When I read this, I just thought it was phenomenal, very muscular, and it was musical to me. Almost like Ellington in the way that it was classical, but so far ahead of its time. I was terrified. I really was. Then Jon Tracy, who had sent it to me – I think he’s one of the real great ones – I was surprised he thought of me for it. I first met him when I was doing Jesus Hopped the A Train, and there’s a long monologue in that, so I thought well, perhaps he believes I can handle long monologues, but there are long monologues and then there’s this. It’s an extraordinary thing to be part of, and it grabs your spirit and your mind.
You do a lot of TV and movies as well as theater. What do you like about doing theater?
I like the immediacy of it, and I like the danger of it. I’m not a danger freak, and I’m not even an adrenaline freak, but I like the necessity of being in that moment in the present tense, and having to let go of whatever came before it, and not jump ahead to what’s coming up.
Was playing a character so angry and so alienated from women difficult to play?
It was difficult to play in part because most of the time it’s easier to love the character you’re doing, so finding that for him was trickier. You have to suspend a lot of things. I happen to have three wonderful sisters. I have an incredible mother. I had a wonderful wife. I have a tremendous regard and affection for women. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced the kind of isolation this gentleman must have experienced, but I know there are a lot of people who do.
His only alternative as he saw it was to make his bargain. Bargains with the devil may not be always so dramatic, but there are a lot of devils out there we make bargains with. As a theater actor you make a decision about livelihood, and you might go into some areas where your chance of making money will be greater, and then you fight for the rest of your career to get back to those experiences that made you want to act in the first place. You might make the bargain with the expectation that you would get a chance to show the world what you feel is your essential gift, and being denied that can twist you up. I know a lot of people more talented than I am who don’t act right now because they met with that sledgehammer of rejection that can occur in film and TV.
What’s your favorite part of being in this show?
The mutual journey I’m on with Stacy and Marissa and the fact that we came through it together, and that we were all terrified although I would like to lay claim to number one most terrified.
What is the most challenging thing about it?
I guess the degree that I have to give myself over. Once we begin there’s nowhere to go. There’s this need to tell this story and in doing that to support the words of this amazing writer and the efforts and actions of our incredible director. That’s the difficulty for me –I feel the weight of responsibility to everybody else in this piece.
How did Jon Tracy direct you in this piece where all of you are on stage the whole time but not interacting?
The trick of the piece in some ways is the last thing you want to be doing in some ways is performing these monologues. There has to be a place deep inside you that allows you to be a vessel for these stories. You’re there by yourself, but you’re also aware of what your fellow actors are doing and you’re there together. You’re there alone together. Maybe it’s what mules go through on mule teams. You’re all pulling together but the piece rests on your individual effort or failure, so it’s about more than how you’re doing, but how you’re doing is key.
Jon directed us beautifully because he allowed us to really explore all of the drama and all of the dynamic of the characters. Then we began a process of whittling back to the clarity of the images and our need to tell this story to the audience.
This was an opportunity for me to fail. I think I used to do more of that when I was younger. This represented a leap of faith on Jon’s part and on Mark O’Rowe’s part to let me be part of this play. And also a leap of my own. I’m pleased to know I was willing to not look so good, and I still have opportunities to fall on my face (laughs), but I won’t be alone, and you can only fall so far being supported by the work, not only on stage, but by this theater as well. They’ve taken care of this piece. This was my first time at the Magic, and what Loretta [Greco, the artistic director of the Magic] has been doing and I imagine will continue to do, force of nature that she is, is exciting. I hope to make my way back there.
Terminus plays at the Magic Theatre through June 16. For more information, call 441-8822 or visit magictheatre.org.