Crown­ing a decades-long stage ca­reer

An in­ti­mate pro­duc­tion of ‘King Lear’ stars Wash­ing­ton actor Rick Foucheux, who says he’s step­ping away from theater

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY nel­son.press­ley@wash­post.com

An actor re­tires, Scene 1: At Mon­day night’s He­len Hayes Awards, only one re­cip­i­ent among the dozens heard the swell of mu­sic from the or­ches­tra mur­mur­ing, “Time’s up.” That was Rick Foucheux, a win­ner as Big Daddy in Ten­nessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — the long­time D.C. actor’s third win in four years.

Thank­ing peo­ple and mildly re­prov­ing the pe­cu­liar num­ber of win­ners ar­riv­ing late to the Lin­coln The­atre, Foucheux — who has said he’s step­ping away from the stage — ban­tered with the con­duc­tor and coolly car­ried on a lit­tle longer. He seemed aw­fully com­fort­able up there. Why rush? “Re­tire­ment,” Scene 2: Nat­u­rally, it’s “King Lear.” Big play, mas­sive role, pin­na­cle of any actor’s ca­reer. De­spite Foucheux’s stated plans, di­rec­tor Tom Pre­witt purred in his ear about maybe tak­ing a shot at Shake­speare’s mas­ter­piece be­fore com­plet­ing his fade-out. It would be with Pre­witt’s WSC Avant Bard, a re­spected nonEquity troupe known for smart stag­ings of clas­sics and high­brow works on a bud­get. It would be in the cozy con­fines of the Gun­ston Arts Cen­ter, the con­verted Ar­ling­ton school space. Well … why not? This pocket “Lear,” which be­gins Thurs­day, brings Foucheux full cir­cle, back to his act­ing roots in the 1980s, be­fore the city’s com­pa­nies up­graded their rough stages and a union­ized gloss be­came the norm. The cast in­cludes old col­leagues such as Christo­pher Hen­ley as the Fool and Cam Magee — who ap­peared in “R.U.R.” at Woolly Mam­moth with Foucheux in 1983 — as Glouces­ter.

“I haven’t been able to work with these guys for 20 years, so this is some­thing of a re­union,” Foucheux says. “They didn’t turn Eq­uity only be­cause they didn’t want to. This clos­ing night will be a cel­e­bra­tion with guys I was work­ing with when we were just pups.”

It sounds like a cozy grace note af­ter a ca­reer that has fea­tured ev­ery­thing from wacky new works to Willy Lo­man in “Death of a Sales­man” and Tevye in “Fid­dler on the Roof.” The con­sum­mate Wash­ing­ton actor not only has 13 Hayes nom­i­na­tions (with five wins, in­clud­ing two for David Mamet plays), they’ve come with eight dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies.

Foucheux may not be drop­ping the mic en­tirely. He’s 62, with a cou­ple of years of union health in­sur­ance to bridge be­fore re­tire­ment age. The days of book­ing cov­eted shows a year or so in ad­vance, though, will wind down.

“I’m tired of work­ing so damn hard,” Foucheux says over sand­wiches in his woodsy For­est Glen house. His own paint­ings (mainly ab­stract) adorn the walls, and in his stu­dio up­stairs, he’s fig­ur­ing out a piece that will vi­su­al­ize 30 years of nights on stage. He’s re­flec­tive and re­laxed. He seems ready to ex­plore a world else­where.

First, though, “Lear” — his sec­ond fling at the play this spring. Pre­witt had di­rected Foucheux in the bizarro 2003 “Cook­ing With Elvis” in the Kennedy Cen­ter’s Fam­ily Theater, where the sex­ual shenani­gans in­volv­ing Foucheux’s Elvis im­per­son­ator had Pre­witt fear­ing they’d get kicked out. Af­ter be­ing paired for a read­ing of “Lear” at D.C.’s in­struc­tional The­atre Lab, they con­tin­ued oc­ca­sional lunches just to talk about the play.

“What forced my hand last year,” Pre­witt says, “was the fact that Rick an­nounced he was in­tend­ing to re­tire.”

Foucheux was al­ready slated to play Glouces­ter, Lear’s loyal friend and an­other trou­bled fa­ther, to Alan Wade’s Lear for a Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity pro­duc­tion in March. Wade, whose per­for­mance marked his own re­tire­ment from GW af­ter 40 years, seems to be speak­ing for his friend when he notes, “There’s no sense go­ing off with some­thing that wasn’t go­ing to be a chal­lenge.”

That’s sud­den sat­u­ra­tion for some­one who had never par­tic­u­larly aimed to­ward Shake­speare’s daunt­ing tragedy. “It wasn’t on my radar,” says Foucheux, who thought more about Fal­staff.

Pre­witt’s show will be fairly bare-bones, with cos­tumes that Foucheux de­scribes as “any time, any place.” The fo­cus is the man in late-life cri­sis, deep fam­ily dys­func­tion, the near-madness and its re­la­tion­ship to power — “A la Nixon, or our cur­rent Mas­ter of the Uni­verse,” Foucheux muses.

With Foucheux on board for this project, “There’s an im­mense amount of in­ter­est,” says Hen­ley, WSC’s former artis­tic di­rec­tor and an actor who is semire­tired him­self. Hen­ley and Foucheux chat­ted re­cently about the un­re­lent­ing as­pects of the the­atri­cal life: “Ac­tors tend to be so am­bi­tious in terms of want­ing to do as much as they can, hat­ing to turn some­thing down,” Hen­ley says. “But I’m sure it’s like this with politi­cians: When you’re part of that world, it just seems like you’re al­ways go­ing to be there, and noth­ing’s go­ing to keep work­ing with­out you. Then when you step back, it’s real dif­fer­ent. Your at­ti­tudes get real dif­fer­ent.”

The Foucheux story fea­tures a tense in­ter­mis­sion in the 1990s, when he quit for four years out of frus­tra­tion. He vividly de­scribes a blowup at home and pack­ing an overnight bag: “How dra­matic was that?” he says mildly, as if removed from it now by a thou­sand miles. He came back to act­ing ca­su­ally and with more of a “This could be fun” at­ti­tude. His deep, crisp voice and mid­dleaged per­sona sud­denly seemed right for roles all over town.

He clowned at the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany in “Twelfth Night” and “The Gov­ern­ment In­spec­tor” and at Woolly Mam­moth in “Heaven,” play­ing a crusty de­tec­tive whose true na­ture is a funkdisco singer: “I be­lieve in mir­a­cles,” he now croons over his sand­wich, re­call­ing the ab­sur­dity and nail­ing the notes of the 1970s Hot Chocolate hit “You Sexy Thing.” He was the orig­i­nal dead man in Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” soloed at Arena Stage in “R. Buck­min­ster Fuller: The His­tory (and Mys­tery) of the Uni­verse,” played Sig­mund Freud, Bernie Mad­off and “Odd Cou­ple” grouch Os­car Madi­son at Theater J. He fea­tured in ac­claimed en­sem­bles, rang­ing from Aaron Pos­ner’s Chekhov ram­ble “Stupid F-ing Bird” to Richard Nel­son’s stately Ap­ple Fam­ily plays at Stu­dio The­atre.

He even gave New York a shot for a credit card-sap­ping eight months, right af­ter play­ing Willy Lo­man at Arena; noth­ing sub­stan­tial ma­te­ri­al­ized. “It was long enough for me to know,” he says of his gam­bit at a pay­day in com­mer­cials or TV. “But I re­ally did have to get that out of my sys­tem. I al­ways would have won­dered.”

Foucheux ac­tu­ally started out in TV, com­ing to Wash­ing­ton to an­chor a morn­ing show in the early 1980s. That gig lasted a year.

“When I’m Willy Lo­man or Lear or Malvo­lio, I can make my­self be­lieve I’m Willy Lo­man or Lear or Malvo­lio,” Foucheux says. “I can’t make my­self be­lieve that I’m some eru­dite guy in a neck­tie with a sport coat on.”

His fa­vorites have been mod­ern Amer­i­can clas­sics — Eu­gene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Ed­ward Al­bee. He only had one crack at Al­bee, play­ing a sup­port­ing role in “The Goat” at Arena.

“Gotta fig­ure that stuff out, man,” he says of Al­bee’s cryp­to­grams. “If Shake­speare is all on the page, Al­bee is al­most all un­der the page.”

On O’Neill: “I re­ally re­spond to him, re­ally un­der­stand him — his peo­ple, his lan­guage.” Foucheux was part of an ex­quis­ite “Ah, Wilder­ness!” at Arena, and he played the ram­bling sales­man Erie Smith in “Hughie” for Wash­ing­ton Stage Guild. “I knew ex­actly who that guy was,” he says of Erie, de­scrib­ing a cry­ing jag one re­hearsal when he got all the way in­side Erie’s iso­la­tion. With his par­tic­u­lar gift for grav­ity and irony, you can imag­ine the O’Neill roles Foucheux might yet play.

But he’s got other things to do: read­ing, paint­ing, trav­el­ing with his wife, M.J. Ja­cob­sen. He’s not the act­ing equiv­a­lent of a gym rat who adores re­hearsal. Driv­ing to work is ex­actly like driv­ing to work. “Still: When I know my lines, and I’m well re­hearsed, and I’m con­fi­dent in the ma­te­rial, and I feel like I’ve got some­thing to of­fer,” he says, “it’s bet­ter than al­most any­thing else.”

He has talked about re­tire­ment with his friend Ted van Gri­ethuy­sen, an actor who quite no­tably has not re­tired. Van Gri­ethuy­sen is cur­rently star­ring in “The Fa­ther” at Stu­dio The­atre, and was pre­sented with a ca­reer tribute dur­ing the Hayes Awards by Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Ted’s ex­actly 20 years older than me, and in the last 20 years, he’s given some amaz­ing per­for­mances,” Foucheux says. “He’s given me rea­son to won­der if I’ll be singing the same tune two years or five years from now. But I can’t worry about that. I want to have some time to my­self while I’m still young enough to en­joy it.”

BON­NIE JO MOUNT/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Rick Foucheux at his home in Sil­ver Spring. Foucheux is plan­ning to re­tire af­ter decades of act­ing in Wash­ing­ton. In ad­di­tion to his stage work, Foucheux is an ac­com­plished artist, and his home is filled with his paint­ings, in­clud­ing the one be­hind him. BE­LOW: Foucheux as Big Daddy in Ten­nessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ” last year at Round House The­atre. He won his third He­len Hayes Award in four years for the role last week.

CHEYENNE MICHAELS

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