All Classical Radio James Depreist

DramaWatch: Alex Hurt, beyond father and son

The actor, son of Oscar winner William Hurt, co-stars at 21ten theater in "A Number," Caryl Churchill's play about a father/son relationship. But he's carving his own path.

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Alex Hurt (left) and Bruce Burkhartsmeier in Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” at 21ten Theatre. Photo: Scott Thompson

The Caryl Churchill play A Number is about, among many things, fathers and sons. In a series of scenes, a man called Salter talks with different men who are each a son of his, at least in terms of genetics. Through some sort of advanced technology – and an uncertain amount of Salter’s knowledge and cooperation – his first son has been replicated. This secret having come out, with all of these men now well into adulthood, a host of issues about identity, relationship and all sorts of other emotionally potent matters have come home to roost.

The play’s resonances probably wouldn’t be lost on anyone, but they have a particular power for Alex Hurt, who stars as all three of Salter’s sons in a terrific production at 21ten Theatre.

Hurt isn’t a clone, of course, but you can understand why he has a fascination with the emotional terrain of the play, with the complexity of father-son relationships. His father also was an actor – the Academy Award winner William Hurt, the sort of star whose talent (and reputation for difficult behavior) could both shine a light and cast a shadow.

For nearly 20 years, ever since he saw a production at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, acting in A Number has been Alex Hurt’s dream project.

“Every acting dude who looks like me wants to do Streetcar, or they want to play Romeo, or whatever,” Hurt says, over the whine of espresso machines in a Southeast Portland coffee shop. “I just wanted to do this play – about a father and a son and what that is, that kind of love. And the lies we tell each other and live in and buy into.”

For several years, Hurt and his father talked of performing the play together, and worked on it intermittently. William Hurt’s death from cancer in March of 2022 put an end to that plan, but also helped bring about the mix of circumstance and happenstance that led to the show at 21ten, which closes this Sunday, Feb. 4. Sensitively directed by Third Rail Rep co-founder Michael O’Connell, it pairs the younger Hurt, who is 40, with the always remarkable Bruce Burkhartsmeier.

The show also cements Hurt as the most notable Portland theater newcomer in years; he also directed the affecting allegorical comedy Taking Care of Animals earlier this season at 21ten.

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Then again, Hurt isn’t really a newcomer. Rather, his move to Portland is a reconnection to long family and personal history in the region.

“My dad’s mother grew up in Burns on a farm with her uncle Alexander,” Hurt says. “She’s buried out there, along with my dad; he’s right next to her, in this itty-bitty desert cemetery.”

William Hurt grew up in Washington, D.C. and in the various overseas postings for his father’s work for the State Department. But eventually, he sought the comfort of Oregon roots.

“When my brothers were 10 or 11 and I was in high school, they’d been having some troubles,” Hurt recalls. “They’d been disoriented, I’d say, by some things that had been going on with their mom. My father had got full custody of them and decided to move them out to Burns and simplify their life. He talked about it like, ‘going back to Mom; Mom will heal us.’”

Around this time, the older Hurt renewed an old acquaintance with Allen Nause. Early in their careers, the two had worked together at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. With Nause in charge of Portland’s Artists Rep, they teamed up again for The Drawer Boy in 2004, an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2007, a Long Day’s Journey Into Night (co-produced with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company) in 2010 and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 2011.

William Hurt (left) and Tim True in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland in 2011. Alex Hurt was in the cast, too. Photo: Owen Carey

The Oregon connections grew. William Hurt for a time maintained homes in both Portland and Harney County. One of his other sons moved to Portland for college. And one of the performers in that production of No Man’s Land was a fine young actor, fresh out of the prestigious graduate theater program at NYU: Alex Hurt.

“We had a – well, it was not a blast; it was life,” he says, seeming to balance his memories as he chooses his words. “There were scary moments, when my dad got really angry about certain things. And there were beautiful moments. And manipulative moments.  I thought he was going to open the door to all the secrets of acting I didn’t get at grad school. That was not the case.

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“But I came away feeling like it had connected us more and that working together again was something I wanted to do. So we looked for another play, and he wanted to do something just with the two of us. We read a few plays and the one that we stuck with was A Number. We read it a few times a year – on vacation somewhere or visiting him in Portland. We’d read the play over and over, trying different approaches, and really wanted to do it together. But he just got sicker and sicker.”

(Tantalizingly, Hurt mentions the last project he and his father worked toward: a staging of Waiting for Godot, for which they’d roped in Nause, former Third Rail stalwart Tim True, and Hurt’s friend Raul Julia-Levy, son of the elder Hurt’s late friend, Raul Julia.)

Alex Hurt’s protean skills were put to good effect at Artists Rep in 2012’s And So It Goes, Aaron Posner’s adaptation of some Kurt Vonnegut short stories, but he remained a New Yorker. The COVID pandemic occasioned a move to Santa Fe, but, he says, “after my father passed I had a real desire to be close to family.” These days, he shares his father’s Portland home with his brothers, and spends part of the week teaching at a Waldorf school on Whidbey Island in Washington, where his children now live with their mother.

While filming a movie in Portland, he met Ted Rooney, founder of 21ten Theatre.

“He had a one-day part where he had a scene with my character, and we just started talking about geeky theater stuff: What’s the best play you ever did? What’s the play you’ve always wanted to do? I, of course, mentioned A Number, and he said, ‘I almost programmed that last season at my theater.’ I said, ‘You have a theater?’ ‘Yeah, I’ve got this little 40-seat place.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s my fantasy!’”

Rooney arranged a one-off reading, and cast Burkhartsmeier to take the role opposite Hurt. Burkhartsmeier mentioned that he’d been at a show at New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre, one of William Hurt’s stage homes, on the night when they’d announced Alex Hurt’s birth.

Alex Hurt and Bruce Burkhartsmeier in “A Number.” Photo: Scott Thompson

“And then we started and it was like I’m reading this with my dad, like we were back in his kitchen,” Hurt recalls. He refers to Burkhartsmeier and his wife, the playwright Sue Mach, as “the kind of people that once you work with them you want them to be a part of your life from then on. I adore them.” 

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O’Connell was in the audience that evening, and after Rooney’s initial choice of director backed out (she wanted to be able to cast the play herself, Hurt says, whereas Rooney insisted he’d already found the right actors), he talked his way into the director’s chair.

“If I ever direct again, I will call Alex first and ask him to be in it – I don’t care what the play is,” O’Connell writes in an email. “He’ s rigorous, experienced, and gives over to the ensemble.  But what separates him is his pure, unadulterated, almost childlike love of the craft.There’s not a note of cynicism in him when entering the work. You cannot tire Alex out. He’s fueled with wonder and curiosity from what seems to be a bottomless reserve.”

Hurt, in turn praises O’Connell’s efficiency and clarity of vision as a director, along with his willingness to explore the depths of possibility in a play as intellectually and emotionally rich as A Number. And he proves O’Connell’s point about his love of the acting craft, talking in passionate detail about his conviction that “rehearsal is ego-reduction over time,” about how he arrived at the varied accents and movement styles of the identical yet un-alike characters he plays, about the psychological journeys the play presents, and so on. 

He chose to become an actor, he says, not because it was the family business but because his mother stressed that he should focus on what he enjoyed doing. “And the truth was I enjoyed relationship and studying other human beings. I wanted to see into other people’s souls. That was what was fascinating to me.”

In A Number, he portrays characters (two of the three, anyway) who try to look into their own souls but no longer trust the reflection. They’re unsettled by what science has done to them, but even more so by what their father has (and hasn’t) done.

“There’s nothing more interesting to me than seeing what it takes to make a person change.
Bernard 2, his world is shattering constantly. There’s a beat where he learns that he was a baby that was made through some process of in vitro. Then he finds out that Salter really is his father genetically … but what does that mean? Then he learns that Salter had another son, so that’s a huge awakening. Then he’s told that that son died, and that his mother died in a car crash rather than when giving birth to him, as he’d always thought. All these watershed moments keep breaking every idea he has about himself.”

Meanwhile Salter, the father figure, tries to paper over the cracks – in his own foundations as much as anyone else’s.

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“I don’t judge Salter and I probably connect with him even more than with the three characters that I play,” Hurt says. “That experience of doing harm and not knowing how to forgive yourself, and because of that doing more harm – that’s what a dry drunk is. And I know a lot about that, ‘cause I was one for a long time. When he actually says the truth – can you imagine having that moment with your father? I can’t. I tried to have that moment with my father so many times: ‘What actually happened? I want to know the truth.’”

In 2011’s “No Man’s Land” at Artists Rep, from left: William Hurt (back to camera), Alex Hurt, Allen Nause, and Tim True. Photo: Owen Carey

It would, to be clear, be reductive and presumptuous to suggest that A Number is Hurt’s way of grappling with the emotional legacy of his relationship with his father. Like any of us – sons or siblings or perhaps even clones – he has his own story, his own life, playing out in all its complexity. He’s a gifted actor as well as a hardworking one. When you watch him onstage, you see passion and craft, not borrowed celebrity.

All the same, he does have that name – and a lifetime of proximity to big-name artists. So eventually I ask: Does working at a 40-seat house in Southeast Portland feel like small change? Or like a good place to do some really granular acting work?

“The work is the work is the work,” he replies. “If you’d talked to me five years ago, I had a lot of ideas about doing theater in New York, and film, and ‘these are the kinds of TV shows I’m going after.’ I had a really big head and a lot of insecurities. What I learned from the pandemic and from my dad’s death and just life hitting ya in the face is: I’m an actor, I can do that anywhere, and it matters to people everywhere. And I think I’m more proud of this production than any other work I’ve done in my life.”

The flattened stage 

Amid the inexhaustible store of clips on YouTube, one can find a number of A Number; that is, excerpts, trailers, bits of commentary, productions recorded in their entirety (although not, of course, in their presence and fullness). Having skipped through several, I find nothing close, to my mind, to the subtlety, the command of rhythm and tone, the emotional richness of what I saw at 21ten. Nonetheless, this brief glimpse from a 2019 production at Writers Theatre, near Chicago, exhibits an interesting approach to the material:

Opening

If the plot to the play Shooting Star – long-ago lovers accidentally meet again while stranded in a snowbound airport – reminds you of the plot to the recent Meg Ryan movie What Happens Later, well, that’s no accident. Steven Dietz co-wrote the screenplay for the latter based on his playscript for the former, written around 2008 and described by The New York Times as a “wistful comedy.” Danyelle Tinker directs a production at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater.

One night only

The comedic actor Rose Bonomo turns to a producer role with Vive L’Amour, which she describes as “a love themed variety show inspired by vaudeville shows of yore.” In practical terms, that means drag king hosts, improvised love songs, Romeo & Juliet excerpts, recitation of sonnets, a tango, some juggling, aerial acts and so forth. Love is a many splintered thing.

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Ashli St. Armant, a singer, writer and arts educator from Southern California, uses the Underground Railroad as setting and inspiration for a story of hope and perseverance in NORTH: The Musical. The show visits Beaverton’s Reser Center for two performances on Saturday.

Reading is fundamental

LineStorm Playwrights presents a reading of Sofia Molimbi’s Group; or Marlene is Dead, a tragi-comedy about parenting. Francisco Garcia directs some reliably enjoyable actors including Jimmy Garcia, Tricia Castañeda-Guevara and Barbie Wu. 

The best line I read this week

“Your way of perceiving the world becomes your way of being in the world. If your eyes have been trained to see, even just a bit, by the way Leo Tolstoy saw, if your heart can feel as deeply as a K.D. Lang song, if you understand people with as much complexity as Shakespeare did, then you will have enhanced the way you live your life.

Attention is a moral act. The key to becoming a better person, Iris Murdoch wrote, is to be able to cast a ‘just and loving attention’ on others. It’s to shed the self-serving way of looking at the world and to see things as they really are. We can, Murdoch argued, grow by looking. Culture gives us an education in how to attend.”

– David Brooks, from an opinion piece in The New York Times headlined “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society”

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for two engaging, informative, and compelling pieces about “A Number” (which we saw twice). I’ve followed your reviews since long before “The Drawer Boy,” and look forward to many more years of your insights.

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