Actress Rosalind Russell of His Girl Friday and Auntie Mame fame once said, “Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.”
And so it is that I find myself semi-blind, slightly unclothed and spinning in circles at rehearsals for the upcoming Valley Playhouse production of Larry Shue’s The Nerd. Someone should have told the playwright that Russell didn’t mean it literally. The comedy centers around Rick Steadman, a socially obtuse war vet who crashes the party, and the life, of fellow veteran Willum Cuppert, now an architect in Indiana. I play Tansy, the girl-next-door whose love for Willum is apparently unconditional. Hence the undressed spinning. How I and other partygoers end up in this position, however, is a hilarious ride best left to the audience to watch unfold.
“If you want a glimpse into friendship, love, dysfunctional relationships, and social awkwardness, then you don’t want to miss it,” says Dawn Womack, who plays Clelia Walgrave, the anxious wife of Willum’s employer.
For an actor, portraying friendship, love, and dysfunction exacts a cost. This is what Russell was truly referring to: the need for an actor to be completely, unequivocally vulnerable to lend authenticity to a character. I’ve learned that this is especially true in a comedy. Imagine if Lucille Ball, Steve Martin, or Robin Williams allowed self-consciousness to seep into their performances. What if the Monty Python boys took a look at their scripts and said, “Knights who say ‘Ni’? That’s plain silly. We’re not saying that.”
This production of The Nerd is full of actors who go there for the entertainment of the audience. Squeezing out a rare free moment between our daily rehearsals, I cornered the cast and director to ask them more about their art and their inner nerds.
Lisa Ha: Why should people come see the show?
Jonathan Stewart (“Willum Cuppert”): Because it’s hilarious. And people should always support local theatre.
Douglas Alan Diehl (“Rick Steadman”): It’s a funny, funny, funny show and takes a great deal of skill from all the performers. It’s not your run-of-the-mill community theater performance.
Jay Zehr (director): There’s an energy you get from a live performance and that’s especially true for comedies. Eastern theater has a concept of energy flow, or qì, that can be given to the actors from the audience members or shared between actors. If you’ve ever attended a play when everyone is hitting their marks and the audience is so engaged they’ve become a part of the performance, then you’ve felt it before. You don’t have that at home with your TV.
LH: This is actually the third time The Playhouse has performed The Nerd. The last time was nine years ago with Jay Zehr in the director’s chair and Douglas Alan Diehl in the eponymous role of The Nerd. Both Jay and Alan are reprising their roles. What’s different this time around?
Jay: The previous production was great, but we have a very strong cast and crew this time out. Jonathan has beyond four years of theater education from Seton Hill. Dawn just wrapped up a speaking role in a movie, and Douglas spent time in L.A. as an actor. And as a director, I know just a bit more than I did last time!
Douglas: When I was a kid doing this show, I was thinking I’d go off to L.A. and become Brad Pitt. It didn’t really happen that way (laughs). My maturity level has grown and I’m taking a different approach this time. I’m doing less generic “nerd” things and thinking about the motivation of the character to make Rick more real and more believable.
I don’t know, Douglas. You still look geeky to me.
LH: How are you preparing for your character?
Howie Jeffries (“Warnock Walgrave”): The character I’m playing right now is not a person I like very much at all on a personal level. He’s angry all the time. It’s very physically demanding — my shoulders and neck are really uptight and I have to go through a ritual to calm down and return to the real Howie Jeffries. But it’s worth it. It’s a very well-written play, quite entertaining, and the commitment from the cast will really bring it off well.
Dawn Womack (“Clelia Walgrave”): I’ve been studying family members, Stepford Wives video clips, and extenuating my nervous tendencies (laughs). The hardest part is that I am not her [Clelia]. She’s very subservient and that’s counterintuitive to who I am. (pauses) Who is asking you these questions?
Lisa Ha (“Tansy McGinnis”): (laughs) Well, considering it’s been more than 10 years since I stepped on a stage with such a talented cast, I’m just trying not to be the weakest link. And projecting so much positivity is hard for me — which is funny when everyone else is struggling with the anxiety, fury, and depression that The Nerd causes when he comes to town. Tansy is upbeat, perky, and warmly affectionate to everyone. I’m none of these things.
LH: Back to everyone else for one more question. Who is your favorite character?
Jay: Rick [The Nerd] is, of course, a very funny character. As a younger actor, however, I would have been typecast as Willum so that part is also very appealing to me.
Douglas: Axel [played by Greg Warrick]. If there’s one character I’m most like, it’d be him. I love his quick wit and how he’s a snob about plays, shows, and film. He’s a smart aleck.
Dawn: I like them all for different reasons. I like how Tansy is your everyday woman, the girl next door. Willum is a young professional who needs to get outside himself to sweep the woman he loves off her feet. The Nerd, he’s just weird. Axel reminds you of your brother, and everyone can identify with moments when they’ve accidentally lost their minds.
LH: Any final tidbits for audience goers?
Jonathan: Without giving too much away, the show can belong to one of three characters depending on the lens you view it through. It’s a good show to see twice.
The Valley Playhouse presents The Nerd by Larry Shue on August 8-18, 2013 at Court Square Theater in downtown Harrisonburg. Tickets are $12 each, and $10 each for groups of 10+. Purchase online or call (540) 433-9189.
Lisa Ha is an assistant director for University Marketing at James Madison University and portrays the character of Tansy McGinnis in The Valley Playhouse production of Larry Shue’s The Nerd.