It is probable that even the most casual Boston theatergoer is familiar with the work of Will McGarrahan. Undoubtedly one of the most constantly working actors in the city, he has established himself as a performer of unqualified reliability and staggering range.
His latest project is Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, which runs through March 26 at the Lyric Stage. In Stage Kiss, two actors with a history find themselves acting opposite one another, and the lines between their real lives and their stage lives become increasingly blurry. McGarrahan plays Adrian, the director of the play that reunites the former lovers.
I had the pleasure of chatting with McGarrahan while on break from rehearsal about his year of great performances and the blurred lines between stage and reality.
I think it’s more surprising when I see that you’re not in a cast than it is when I open the program and see that you are!
[laughs] Well, that’s nice to hear! Yeah, and you know, the truth is, all the sort of “Oh yeah, he always does shows at the Lyric”—to me, every year is a total crapshoot. You develop relationships with theaters and stuff like that, but you never really know at the beginning of the year. You just keep plugging along and keep putting your name in and auditioning and seeing if it lines up. Luckily, lately, it’s been lining up.
The diversity of roles, too, that you’ve played over the last year or so has been very enjoyable to watch. In Casa Valentina you played a very complicated role; you did delicious character work in Peter and the Starcatcher; and then, recently, in Mame, you were the leading man. It was a well-rounded year, I would say.
You don’t always have the choices, but to do the variety of stuff is always nice. And that includes not only the characters, but also comedies, dramas, and musicals. I certainly enjoy that.
What do you think you gravitate toward? What is your impulse?
I do think it’s character; something in the character that I relate to. And that can be, like, “Oh, that character is like me,” or, “I get what this character is going through.” The essence of the character’s conflict.
In Stage Kiss, you are directing these two individuals who bring a lot of baggage with them to their roles in the show within the show.
That’s right. The thing about it is, he doesn’t really know the baggage ’cause he’s a little—I don’t want to say self-involved, but his focus is directing the play—so the personal stuff that they’re going through in the first act, he’s clueless about. He doesn’t even know it’s happening.
You mentioned developing relationships with a theater company, but I imagine that other types of relationships are cultivated in the many hours that are spent together readying a play.
In terms of personal relationships?
Well, yes. Romantic.
The thing about the theater is that you only really have 3 ½ weeks to rehearse the play, and you just sort of need to speed up that trust timeline. In normal life, you just sort of learn to trust someone over time because of experience. But in the theater, you’ve just got to throw yourself in there. Throwing yourself into that level of trust, you get to know personal things about people you work with a lot quicker than you do working at Starbucks or a law firm. You’re exploring personal, emotional issues within the play and, inevitably, you’re sharing stuff about yourself. That can lead to close enduring friendships, and every now and then it can lead to romantic stuff, but I don’t see that that much. It definitely happens, but what this play explores is the effect of kissing somebody night after night—just a physical act of intimacy. Can we separate that from feelings? To a certain extent you can, and to a certain extent you can’t.
In terms of lines being blurred between stage life and real life, could that also include taking your characters home with you at night?
Yes. That can definitely happen. Sometimes it’s not necessarily emotional stuff; say, if you have a character that is very forthright or witty or something like that, you get into a rhythm and you just stay in that rhythm sometimes. But the emotional stuff, it can literally creep into your dreams, sometimes. When you’re digging stuff up in rehearsal, it can come home with you and sort of get into your psyche. It’s never just a job. It requires more investment than that, and that has an effect on your real life.
Sarah Ruhl is known for writing kind of oddball, sometimes pretty out-there plays. Stage Kiss has been called her most accessible play. Why do you think that is?
She’s exploring the world of the theater, first of all. There’s a lot about the theater and sharing what’s fun and interesting about the theater. And the other thing is, the idea of people who have had a relationship, and that rekindling, somehow, is something that people have experience with.
In your creation the role of the director, have you kind of taken bits and pieces from directors you’ve worked with? What has your creation been like? It seems pretty wide open.
It’s pretty wide open. This is not Casa Valentina where I’m exploring a world that is foreign to me. That took rehearsal, that took a lot of opening myself up. This thing, the director in this play, I know what directors are like so I’m able to pick and choose and develop a character that actually serves Stage Kiss. It’s not like I have to look too hard to figure it out, which is nice.
STAGE KISS. 2.24–3.26 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY OF BOSTON, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.