Los Angeles Times
May 28, 1995

A Touch of Class on the Boards:

The Eloquent John Vickery Is Never Far from the Classics. He Returns Friday in 'The Cherry Orchard.'

By JAN BRESLAUER.   Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.

While John Vickery was playing Mowbray in "Richard II" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992, the earth moved: 6.1 on the Richter scale, to be exact.

Then, after the earthquake, the actors picked up where they had left off and finished out the press night performance. It was all in an evening's work for those who speak the speech in the land of palm trees and freeways.

Vickery, for one, knows well that you have to take things as they come. In fact, he views his career in belles-lettres as something of a stroke of luck in the first place.

"I didn't set out to be a classical actor," says Vickery, seated outside a Los Feliz coffeehouse, nursing a latte and a cigarette before making his daily commute to South Coast Repertory, where he'll be appearing in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," opening Friday.

"I set out to do good plays," he continues. "But I've been extremely lucky. I've never had to wait tables or drive cabs."

A thespian whom The Times' Don Shirley recently called "one of America's best classical actors," Vickery has played principal roles in the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Moliere on such key stages as the Public Theatre in New York, the Old Globe in San Diego, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Mark Taper Forum. He has also appeared in many contemporary plays, including his most recent Broadway outing in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig."

Yet it is for his classical roles that Vickery is best known. And the secret of his success with the canon, as the actor sees it, is simply adventurousness.

"I tend to view everything as an experiment," Vickery says. "I approach classical plays with great skepticism. Skepticism is my main weapon as an actor. I don't automatically assume plays are great until I get into them and discover why they're great."

His trademark sonorous tones turn soft-spoken in person. Vickery is as poised offstage as he is on the boards, although there's little sign of the regal bearing he has brought to an array of kings, leaders and lovers.

Born in Oakland, Vickery, 44, wound up in the theater by "accident." "I was trapped, by my high school English teacher, into being in a play," he says. "I've always been terribly shy and I guess I opened up."

Vickery enrolled at UC Berkeley and became a math major, pursuing theater on the side. He transferred to UC Davis partway through, mostly "to get away from home."

After college, he spent a year traveling around Europe, during which time he decided to make a go of it as an actor. Then, once back in the United States, he tapped into the then-thriving experimental theater scene in the Bay Area.

"I started out in experimental theater because that's what you did in 99-seat theaters in Berkeley at the time," he says. "That was what was on the plate of the theater community."

It was a rich environment in which to nurture his talent. "As with here, a lot of the good work gets done in the 99-seat theaters," Vickery says. "Unfortunately, you can't make a living at it."

Soon though, he began to feel that he needed more training. "After I'd worked for five or six years, I was still missing something," says Vickery, who enrolled in a one-year postgraduate acting program at the Drama Studio in England in 1979.

"It was highly technical training," Vickery says. "You learned phonetics, anatomy, voice, Shakespeare and fight choreography. It articulated things that I'd understood instinctually, but it made me self-conscious as an actor for about five years. I was always checking myself."

V ickery abandoned the Drama Studio program partway through to take a job at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival. Then, after spending the summer at the festival, he moved to New York.

There he hooked up with director Des McAnuff, whom he had first met when both were working with director Robert Woodruff in the Bay Area experimental scene.

The three men were typical of the iconoclastic talents who were gravitating toward classical theater during the late 1970s and early 1980s. "People who had never dealt with classical texts were bringing to them the tools of experimental theater and a willingness to investigate," Vickery says.

Vickery's reputation as a classical actor stems from this time, and particularly from the first two Shakespeare roles he assayed in New York: Malcolm in a Lincoln Center "Macbeth" and Prince Hal in McAnuff's Central Park "Henry IV," both in 1980-81.

When McAnuff became the artistic director of the reborn La Jolla Playhouse in 1983, he brought Vickery to Southern California theater to play the lead in "Romeo and Juliet" in the theater's first season. Vickery then returned in 1985 and again in 1989, when he played the title role in McAnuff's "Macbeth."

Also in the mid-1980s, Vickery moved to California. "I was disappointed in the (limited) amount of serious theater that was being done in New York," says the actor, who has been married for eight years to his wife, Virginia, and has a 5-year-old daughter, Alexandria. "I don't sing and dance, so I was left out of all the musicals."

Since that move, Vickery has been welcomed by audiences and critics alike. "John Vickery plunges into the role," wrote Times theater critic Laurie Winer of the actor's recent lead turn in "The Misanthrope" at South Coast Repertory. "Vickery's Alceste is certainly entertaining. He . . . controls all conversation with his booming voice and clipped diction."

Of his 1992 performance in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," New York Times reviewer Mel Gussow wrote, "Mr. Vickery is both dashing and self-mocking, winning laughs with looks and pauses as well as with Ms. Wasserstein's lines."

Yet for all the verbal eloquence and character detail that Vickery brings to his roles, he insists that he finds it all in the script. "My approach is text-oriented," he says. "Great writers like Shakespeare and Chekhov take care of their actors."

A compelling and credible performance is, according to the actor, an organic one. "There's a misconception that style is something that's imposed from the outside," Vickery says. "Style is imposed on you by patterns that the playwright writes into the text."

When it comes to Chekhov, though, meaning can be recondite. "Chekhov writes in an elusive way," Vickery says. "People mistakenly feel that the main thing that's being communicated is boredom. Well, if that's what's being communicated, the audience can't help but be bored."

In Martin Benson's "The Cherry Orchard," Vickery, who plays businessman Lopahin, is joined by a particularly notable cast that includes such veterans as Alan Mandell, Richard Doyle, Art Koustik and Raye Birk.

But even such a seasoned ensemble has to contend with precedent. "There's this tremendous backlog of tradition about how you do Chekhov, 90% of which is garbage," Vickery says. "Because of that, you tend to get productions that are terribly ponderous and pretentious."

The practice traces to a historic misinterpretation, according to Vickery. "It began with Stanislavski assuming 'The Cherry Orchard' was a tragedy," he says. "Chekhov thought it was a comedy."

The keys to unlocking both the characters and their humor, Vickery says, are in the text. "People aren't sure what they're feeling and they usually don't get to any point at all," he says. "That's who they are. And that's also the difficulty."

Similarly, in Shakespeare, hints about who the Bard's men and women are can be found embedded in the verse. "I think one of the reasons that 'Troilus and Cressida' (for instance) is not done much is that there's a lot of obscure writing," Vickery says. "But that's part of Shakespeare's plan. Obscure speech is indicative of the character."

Moreover as Vickery sees it, in both Chekhov and Shakespeare -- and even in contemporary works -- there are some tasks that an actor must never shirk. Chief among these is deciphering the big picture.

"I want to know what's going on in the whole play, even when I'm not onstage," the actor says. "I'm not sure a lot of American actors see the whole arc of their character, rather than just the moment-by-moment behavior. Actors need to take more responsibility than just for their own roles. They have a responsibility to tell the story of the play."

Vital Stats
'The Cherry Orchard'
Address: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Schedule: Opens Friday, through July 2. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday- Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Price: $26-$36
Phone: (714) 957-4033

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