When Conor McPherson handed Henry Wishcamper a copy of his 2001 play Port Authority
, Wishcamper noticed something odd.
"I think it's the only play that I've ever read that has no stage directions whatsoever," says Wishcamper, who directed the Atlantic Theatre's stunning American premiere production, which runs through June 22. "There's a number before each section, and then it's just what the guys say. It reads like a novel in a lot of ways."
Wishcamper had his work cut out for him, in other words, but he was ready: He'd served as Robert Falls' assistant director on the Broadway debut of McPherson's Shining City
in 2006, and more recently as assistant director to Anna Shapiro on August: Osage County
. Wishcamper had also directed a number of productions with his own Katharsis Theatre Company, and for New York's Keen Company, where he also assistant-directed a production of McPherson's play The Good Thief
Directing Port Authority at the Atlantic represented not only a big career break for Wishcamper. The play--in which three men from Dublin relate three rollicking, rueful stories directly to the audience, but not to each other--also represented a unique challenge.
"Directing is all about figuring out when you take the lead and when you go with what comes at you," Wishcamper explains. "In that way, I don't feel like this is really any different from anything else that I've worked on. But the actors' experience in doing a play like this is very different from an actors' experience doing anything else, so the way you take on the role of guide is different, just because they feel like they're out there on their own."
Wishcamper's task, then, was to help his three actors on their individual journeys, and then bind their work together.
"We had three very different rehearsal processes with the three different guys, because they had different ways that they wanted to work on it," Wishcamper recalls. That meant that until three days before the first preview with an audience, the actors--Jim Norton, who appeared in the original London production of Port Authority
, as well as the recent Broadway run of McPherson's The Seafarer;
Brian D'Arcy James, who starred in The Good Thief
but is maybe best known as a musical theatre performer (Next to Normal
, the upcoming Shrek
); and John Gallagher Jr. of Spring Awakening
and Rabbit Hole
--worked on their monologues alone with Wishcamper, as if they were preparing three separate solo shows.
"I would rehearse about two hours a day with each guy, and they'd see each other in the hall and say, ‘Oh, it's you--this guy I don't really know who I'm doing a play with, how's it going?' "
When at last they did come together and perform their monologues in the interlocking fashion they do in the play, "It was amazing," Wishcamper recounts. "The play really coalesced on that single day. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, that's how we connect--you say something like that, and I say something like this--how amazing is that?' "
The setting for these confessional monologues is the waiting room of some kind of bus or train station, with a long bench across the stage. It's not necessarily a literal depot, though.
"Conor describes the play as three men who are summoned to the stage by God and compelled to tell the truth," Wishcamper says. "That was really a very useful sentence to have in the back of my mind, in terms of figuring out what the space was and what they were doing there."
But while Conor had a "very clear and fairly rigid idea of how the play worked," Wishcamper says, he allowed the American production to have "looser concept." Specifically, while in the London production the three characters had precisely no consciousness of each other, the Atlantic production allows for a few moments of subtle communion.
"Conor was very clear that the three guys were not aware of each other, and that when they weren't speaking they were doing whatever they needed to do to get themselves ready for the next part," Wishcamper says. "But I had the sense that there might be things for them to gain, and for the audience to gain, if we saw them occasionally become aware of something that somebody said. I guess there are about a dozen points in the course of the play when one of the guys, to some extent or another, hears what the other guys are saying."
The effect of this intertwined work is a bit like a musical performance by three virtuoso soloists. But it's not always easy listening.
"There's something very sharp--there are some lines that just feel like a backhand across the face," Wishcamper concedes about McPherson's lyrical but often brutally honest writing. "Conor sets you up so you think it's funny, and then the weight drops, or he does the opposite--all of a sudden there's a joke where you weren't expecting it."
Fans of McPherson's plays--which include The Weir, This Lime Tree Bower and St. Nicholas--are familiar with these hairpin turns and breathtaking drops. But without an expert hand leading the actors and audience through the dark, knotty thickets of McPherson's language, and shaping the experience into an evening of theatre, this would simply be prose; we could order the book on Amazon and stay home and read it at our own pace. But that would be missing something: As Wishcamper puts it, "It reads very well on the page, but when you hear the words, you get a sort of cinematic visual experience that you don't get otherwise."
If Port Authority adds another masterwork to McPherson's canon, a great deal of this production's impact can be laid at the feet of the tall, quiet man who, in directing it, took it from the page to the stage.
Learn more about Port Authority