Acting on the edge

Thursday, June 21

If actor David Adkins seems a bit beside himself these days, it's no wonder. He's playing twin brothers, John and James Jeckyll, in Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" on the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage, where previews began Tuesday. The comedy-drama runs through July 7. Press opening is tomorrow.

Actually, Adkins isn't quite beside himself. At one point in the play, he does stand in front of himself as John carries on a conversation with James, who is seated, facing him.

Compared to a recent gig, playing two different characters in one play is a piece of cake for Adkins.

In a spring production of Douglas Wright's "I Am My Own Wife" at Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin, Adkins played 42 characters, with three different accents.

"I learned how little you have to do to shift characters, a light change in stance, the tonal quality of the voice," Adkins said during a recent rehearsal-break interview at BTF's Lavan campus, about two miles up Route 7 from the theater.

"In this play, McNally does all the work for you. His characters are so clear. So, you have subtlety in changes along with clarity of writing."

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" is set at the Dutchess County (N.Y.) lakeside vacation home of a successful choreographer, Gregory Mitchell, who has invited a group of friends for a long holiday weekend visit. The play's three acts unfold, respectively, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends.

James doesn't appear until the second act, Fourth of July weekend. He is dying of AIDS.

In terms of personality, he is the opposite of John.

" 'Perry has already dubbed them James the Fair and John the Foul,' " John says, reading from Gregory's journal.

"It's like looking in a mirror and seeing the dark side of yourself and the light side," Adkins said.

"John is a deeply wounded man trying desperately to connect to people, his friends. I think John loves very deeply but has trouble letting it come out. His arrogance, his brooding nature are ways of getting around feeling.

"He has felt since childhood that James always had their parents' unconditional love.

"James is dying. Your perspective on the world changes once you get that diagnosis. You look at a sunset differently."

If Adkins sounds as though he's speaking from experience, he is. His stepfather — a man he has considered his father since he was 11 — recently died of Alzheimer's.

Adkins, who is in his 11th season at BTF, was in his first year at the Juilliard School in New York when he came to BTF for the first time as an apprentice in 1985. He became part of BTF's children's theater company, then spent two years as a member of the Unicorn Theatre acting company. In 1989, the year he graduated Juilliard, he also graduated from the Unicorn and made his first appearance on BTF's Main Stage in A.R. Gurney's "The Middle Ages."

In the years since then he's appeared in, among other productions, "The Hasty Heart" and "The Misanthrope" on BTF's Main Stage and "The Father" in the Unicorn.

In addition, Adkins has worked at regional theaters around the country. In recent years, he's worked a good deal in the Baltimore area to be near his dying stepfather.

"This has been a formative part of my training," Adkins said of BTF.

At the age of 44, Adkins says that in fundamental ways he is not the actor he was 20 or so years ago. The most significant change, Adkins says, is that he has become less concerned with appearance, less careful. That doesn't mean he's grown sloppy. Watch him on stage and you know this is a diligent, well-trained, well-focused actor. What Adkins means is that he's taking more risks.

"I care less about how it's done," he said. "When I was younger, I always was concerned with getting it right. Now I just want to shake it off.

"The real trick is letting it be. It's a matter of feeling more comfortable on stage and not caring as much about what people think."

It's about letting go.

"I think that when you let things go, you learn more about motivation and character. You really find the character when you let go of control," said Adkins.

"My favorite teacher at Juilliard, (director) Michael Langham, once said something in class about having the courage not to remember your next line, to be that much on the edge of thought."

At this point in his career, Adkins says his choices of projects have as much to do with the people who are involved as it does with the material. One of the reasons he chose to do this production is its director, Anders Cato, with whom Adkins worked on "The Misanthrope" and "The Father."

"Anders also directed a production of 'I Am My Own Wife' so we've both learned the same things," Adkins said. "He also creates the kind of safe rehearsal atmosphere that allows actors to let go and discover.

"We're having a lot of fun with this."

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" opened at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in November 1994 and moved to Broadway two months later.

The situation around AIDS has changed a great deal since 1994.

"AIDS was a death sentence then," Adkins said. "Now, with all the cocktails and new treatments it's regarded as a disease you can live with for some time."

That said, Adkins believes the play's themes make McNally's work as relevant today as it was 13 years ago.

"The people in this play are trying to find a place in a world that might not want them.

"It's about a family. It's a family play in many respects," Adkins said.

"It asks how we embrace who we are as individuals and celebrate that diversity and, at the same time, celebrate and honor our place (as individuals) in this country.

"It's an American play; a very American play."


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions