I read Catcher In the Rye in my younger years and it plastered my ribs like stucco. A novel for the ages. Later I would read and admire Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters to confirm the brilliance of J.D. Salinger. A couple of summers ago, against my better judgement, I settled into Joyce Maynard’s At Home In the World, her brutally honest memoir about the secluded year she spent with the legendarily reclusive Salinger. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with many truly great artists, the actual person is far less appealing than the art.
Well, Los Angeles theatre has a Salinger of its own. But thankfully, in this case, the artist and the art both make the grade.
As long as I’ve covered theatre in Los Angeles, the name Laura Richardson has ubiquitously floated over the landscape. And, while she may not be as reclusive as the late Salinger, she is reluctant, nonetheless, to discuss her work. She is presently starring in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. Don’t ask me how, but I managed (Finally!) to corner her last week outside an antique store in Silver Lake and she was generous enough to give me a few minutes.
Lars Beckerman: Wow, Laura, we finally meet. Thanks for taking the time.
Laura Richardson: You’re welcome.
LB: How is the show going?
LR: (Long pause) Um, it’s going well. I’m hesitant to say it’s going great – I don’t ever let myself get too…happy. But, it’s going well. Yeah. It’s going well.
LB: You’ve been working with the Open Fist Theatre Company since 2006. Your play, Doo Doo Love was a big hit there, an L.A. Times “Critic Pick.” Last year you appeared on stage in Horton Foote’s Getting Frankie Married – and Afterwards. Do you have a preference between the writing and the acting?
LR: I like ’em both. I guess. I don’t know. I find as a writer, to be a little more nervous when a show is going up. It’s a different kind of fear than acting.
LB: Can you compare the satisfaction between watching a cast perform a play you’ve written to being on stage and knowing you have just given a strong performance?
LR: I would say they are similar. But again, I don’t like to celebrate stuff too much. (Another pause – then, realizing what she just said) That makes me wanna cry.
LB: Scott Paulin directed you in Frankie last year. You have a long working relationship together – was he the reason you took the role of ‘Ella’ in Curse of the Starving Class?
LR: Yes. I’ve done three Horton Foote plays with Scott – and my play, Come Back, Little Horny, we put up at the Lost Studio together, directed by Martha Demson (Artistic Director at the Open Fist). This part (‘Ella’), I kept trying to stay away from it. I had no intention of auditioning for it. First of all, I don’t like to compete, so I didn’t want to throw my hat in the ring and go up against all the great women we have in our company that are in my age range. But…I don’t get to a point where I’m thinking “I have to play that part!” I’m not that kind of actor. I’m not like that.
LB: Tell me about the role of ‘Ella.’
LR: I played the role in college. And I…didn’t really remember too much about it. Didn’t remember what I did. So…in revisiting it, after reading it again, I see the layers that I probably didn’t have before.
LB: Is that simply a result of the years that have passed?
LR: Yeah. I suppose. I’m older. (Laura rolls her eyes) Wiser. You don’t really know what you’re doing in college. College, it was like, just memorize the lines and go where they tell you to go.
LB: What have you learned this time around, playing ‘Ella?’
LR: I try to think of the big issue of the character, and how I relate to that. (Pause) To me…her big issue…is wanting to be free.
At this point in our conversation, Laura gets emotional and we stop for a bit. It is obvious that the role has crept inside her. I’ve seen the play three times now and her performance is not only heartbreaking, but transformative. She plays opposite Kevin McCorkle (playing the role of ‘Weston’) who also delivers the performance of his distinguished career. They play a married couple on the skids, struggling against economic circumstances and his alcoholism to not only save their failing farm, but to keep their family together. Their children are played by two exceptional young actors: Juliette Goglia, 14, plays ‘Emma,’ and Ian Nelson, 28, plays ‘Wesley.’ It’s a wonderful play, oozing compassion for American society and the inherent trappings of capitalism and the baby boom that the post World War II generation grappled with.
We settle back in.
LB: I love the final scene of Curse of the Starving Class. The emotion – the forgiveness that both you and Ian convey is really brilliant. Is it a relief at that point, to be getting to the end of such an emotional journey?
LR: Yes! It’s definitely a relief. It’s also a relief to know I don’t have to play the emotion. It’s always about just telling the story. And whatever comes up. It’s such a great play.
LB: Well, whatever you’re doing, it’s working.
LR: That’s nice. Thanks.
LB: Anyone ever compare you to Judy Garland?
LR: Oh, thanks. I love Judy Garland. I love all the old actresses. I’m an old film buff. I could spend years on the couch – watching those old movies. And I have!
LB: I have to ask you, what’s it like working with Juju the lamb?
LR: I love Juju. Juju is adorable. (Pause) Fortunately, I’m not on stage with her that much.
We both laugh. But it still seems as though Laura might begin to cry. We forge on.
LB: What’s next?
LB: Also at the Open Fist?
LR: Yeah. Very excited. And scared. And hoping I lose ten pounds, cuz that’s usually what happens.
She cracks up. I can tell she wants to get going. I’m losing her – but I’m still feeling like the cat that ate the canary.
LB: Because of the anxiety?
LR: Yeah. The anxiety – that’s it. I end up rolling around on the kitchen floor.
LB: Well, Laura, this has been a real treat for me. (She sticks her tongue out at me) Continued success with Curse of the Starving Class and best of luck with your new play.
LR: Thanks, Lars. Sorry I got so emotional.
I’m speechless. If only she knew that’s what makes her so good. Then, before I can look up from my note pad to say “thank you” – she is gone.
I’m suddenly reminded, as I gather my notes – satisfied – of one of my favorite Salinger quotes from Franny and Zooey.
“I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.”
Curse of the Starving Class, one of Shepard’s best, runs at the Open Fist Theatre until June 4.