For almost 20 years, the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch has carved out a wonderful niche for producing World Premieres – plays that have never been seen before. Many have gone on to successful runs at regional theaters across the country; some, like “Butler,” which just finished a run at 59E59 Theaters in New York City, find themselves on Off-Broadway stages. While most theaters make news when they present a World Premiere, NJ Rep does it so often that it makes news when it isn’t presenting one.
The company is currently staging the New Jersey Premiere of “Iago” by the late James McLure, now through September 25. The play involves backstage intrigue, romance and scandal during and after rehearsals of “Othello” within a period comic-drama. McLure is well known for the plays “Lone Star,” “Laundry and Bourbon,” “The Day They Shot John Lennon” and “Pvt. Wars.” “Iago” is rumored to be one of roughly 70 he wrote that were never staged during his lifetime.
NJ Rep’s cast includes Ezra Barnes, John FitzGibbon, Todd Gearhart and Liza Vann, and the production is directed by SuzAnne Barabas. For Vann, this is a role she’s waited a long time to play.
“I met Jim (McLure) in 2003,” recalled Vann. “I literally was rereading one of my all-time favorite plays, ‘Laundry and Bourbon,’ one day, and wondered why I hadn’t seen a new Jim McLure play in a while. I have loved his writing forever; he’s just so good, so smart, so funny. So… long story short, I called his agent who told me that Jim actually had a new play called ‘Iago’ currently in development as a part of the Southern Writers’ Project at ASF. I asked to read it; loved it; and flew down to meet Jim. We spent two fast and furious days talking, batting around possibilities; and when I left, we put a game plan into motion. But, as with so many projects, the timing was never quite right for one reason or another. And then, in 2011, I got the message from a mutual friend that Jim had died. Since then, I have become close friends with Jim’s family, and together we picked up where Jim and I had left off — ‘Iago’ once again front and center. And that’s how I’ve gotten to know Jim, through those who knew and loved him best.”
“Iago” has only been presented a handful of times around the country, and the opportunity to be the first to stage it in New Jersey caught the company’s eye.
“It’s a little-known play by a prominent playwright,” explained Barabas, NJ Rep’s Artistic Director and Co-Founder. “It’s a play that never made the rounds of regional theaters, and one that deserves another look-see. It is a New Jersey premiere, after all, so it’s certainly new to our audiences.”
“It’s a play within a play,” continued Barabas. “A backstage story of love and betrayal. A well-respected theatrical couple, along with an esteemed director, prepare to present an innovative production of ‘Othello.’ They’ve added a young up-and-coming Australian actor to the Othello/Desdemona/Iago triangle and their real life story mirrors, in some way, the play they are rehearsing.”
McLure’s story is generally thought to be loosely based on the real-life marriage of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. It deals with the difficulties the two faced over the years from infidelity to health issues. Barabas said the cast did research the famous actors, but treated the characters as people inspired by Leigh and Olivier rather than a retelling of their lives.
“I’ve had the honor of playing many historical figures, Mary Shelley, Marietta Corsini (the wife of Machiavelli) and Susan B. Anthony among them,” said Vann. “And while ‘Vivacity’ is based on Vivien Leigh, the character is not meant to be a portrayal of her, rather more the essence of her. Indeed, I think it is extremely important to research historical figures, but I have always felt that research is there to inform, not to dictate. In this instance, there is clearly no shortage of information about Vivien Leigh, so films, documentaries, biographies, articles, etc. all became a part of the process.”
For a playwright raised in the South, James McLure’s work and New Jersey have a rather interesting history. In addition to presenting the World Premiere of “The Day They Shot John Lennon,” McCarter Theatre in Princeton was the first to combine “Lone Star” with “Laundry and Bourbon” to form “1959 Pink Thunderbird” — a combination that has been presented ever since.
According to Barabas, this play is the closest NJ Rep has come to presenting Shakespeare on its stage. It offers the audience an interesting blend of modern language alongside the classical words of the Bard. The language is one of the aspects that Vann adores about the play.
“The weaving of the ‘Othello’ tale into the fabric of these lives is extraordinary by itself, but to manipulate this emotional crazy quit with humor and wit is sheer genius,” explained Vann. “It is language at its best. These are big people leading big lives in the heyday of Hollywood; theatre royalty wrapped in a ‘Downton Abbey’ package. Add gorgeous costumes and a sword fight – what’s not to love?”
“Iago” runs at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ, through September 25. For tickets or more information, visit www.njrep.org.