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Ian Barford on his challenging role in Tracy Letts' Linda Vista on Broadway
Ian Barford realizes that some audience members may view the 50-year-old divorcé he portrays in Tracy Letts' Linda Vista as "despicable, a misanthrope, a narcissist and probably a nihilist." He feels that way about him too. But the actor also sees his character, Dick Wheeler, as "incredibly articulate, and hilarious," even "noble."
"He has so many dimensions and contradictions: He's lovable and he's hateable," Barford says. "I'm scared many people will love to hate him -- and I'm sure that many people will hate to love him."
The actor is probably best known to New York audiences for his turn as the emasculated Little Charles in Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, which was directed by Barford's wife, Anna D. Shapiro. Linda Vista -- first produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and now brought to Broadway by Second Stage Theatre -- is the fourth Letts play in which Barford has originated a role. The two men seem to enjoy collaborating, and they have a lot in common: They were born one year apart in the 1960s to university professor parents and grew up in the Midwest -- Barford in Charleston, Illinois, Letts in Durant, Oklahoma. Both are members of Steppenwolf and have known each other for 30 years. They also share a political worldview, which Barford sums up by quoting a funny, expletive-laden line by Wheeler blasting Trump supporters.
Barford says their overlapping experiences informed the character of Wheeler. However, "it is not autobiographical since the conditions of Wheeler's life are very different from the conditions of Tracy's life," he notes. "But the nature of Wheeler's thinking, the sound of his voice, the rhythm, the political rants, the cultural rants, much of that is very aligned with Tracy."
At the outset of the play, Wheeler has relocated from his ex-wife's garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista community of San Diego, California. Once a photographer, he now works in a camera shop and is a broken man. "I'm too old to pretend to be something I'm not," Wheeler says early on, "and a lot of the things I am are not attractive." Yet over the course of the play, he becomes involved with three different women; he doesn't always treat them well.
Barford says Linda Vista is "primarily a comedy. But while you're laughing, you are also getting drawn into the tragic undercurrent of this antihero character." That makes Wheeler a challenging role to play, especially in an era when people are frustrated with "white men and their narcissism and their privilege and their way of carrying themselves through the world," admits Barford. "Wheeler is very lonely, he is very sad, and all of these components make him unable to recognize that other people are not objects in the narrative of his own life."
Barford says that "there are scenes when I can feel the audience hatred of me just mounting." That makes him want to shout out: "'No you don't understand, I'm in pain. I didn't mean it, I'm really a good guy!' But that's not what the story is about."
The role is demanding in other ways as well. The play lasts nearly three hours, and Barford never leaves the stage. He has "big, thick chunks of dialogue that have to be rendered as kind of one thought," he says, adding that "Wheeler is a talker, and a fast thinker." Barford is also required to be cruel, to be rejected, to beg abjectly and to engage in simulated sex in the nude.
"There are a series of scenes in the second half that I refer to as the gauntlet," Barford says. "Tracy sets this guy up to get obliterated in three straight scenes -- one woman after the other just handing him his ass."
Yet Barford hopes that audiences will find Wheeler's at-times unpleasant journey a rewarding one in the end. "I feel like the play is about a spiritual awakening," he says. "Tracy doesn't abandon this guy. He's saying human beings can be redeemed. We all have to do our internal work to keep our pathological impulses from being at the forefront of our behavior. Then we recognize other people as being worthy of our better angels, and not just of our sadness or anger or pain."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Linda Vista. Go here to browse our current offers.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Cora Vander Broek and Ian Barford in Linda Vista. Photo by Joan Marcus.