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For the Theater’s Garrett-Groag, Life Is All Work and All Plays

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lillian Garrett-Groag--a much-in-demand director, actress, playwright, screenwriter and librettist--is a person with so little free time that she has barely seen her Los Angeles home since March and doesn’t expect to again until November.

So it’s ironic that she’s directing the Old Globe Theatre’s latest production, “La Fiaca,” Ricardo Talesnik’s story about a man with all the free time in the world. Of course, the reason he has so much free time is he woke up one morning with “la fiaca"-- a Spanish expression that loosely translates into spring fever-- and decided he’s not going to work anymore.

Despite the fact that his inactivity makes his world fall apart, Garrett-Groag acknowledges that sometimes she’s a little jealous of the lead character in this play, which will have its U.S. premiere of an English translation by Raul Moncada open Thursday at the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

“Every time I see him I want to slap him, because I wonder why I can’t do that,” Garrett-Groag said laughingly of the character.

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“I go 15-18 hours a day, and it doesn’t stop,” she said. Indeed, she looked fragile and a bit tired as she stopped to talk in the lobby of the Cassius Carter. “I have no weekends. I haven’t taken a day off in five years. I know how wonderful it would be to lie at home and read a Vogue magazine or some Ruth Rendell mysteries.”

But there’s no chance of that happening any time soon.

The day after “La Fiaca” opens, she will fly to New York to oversee casting of her play “The White Rose,” which will make its Off-Broadway debut Oct. 15 at the WPA Theatre. Based on the true story of German students who protested the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany, “The White Rose” had its world premiere last January at the Old Globe as one of the AT&T; New Play for the Nineties series. Garrett-Groag has already sold the screen rights to independent producer Bruce Kerner, who said last week that Arthur Hiller will direct.

When she’s through in New York, Garrett-Groag will head back to Los Angeles to perform multiple roles in Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” at the Mark Taper Forum. The show, opening Jan. 10, is a two-parter that runs two nights and covers 200 years of history. She says she will travel with the production to London and New York, but is slightly torn about the plans because she would like to oversee the production of her play, “Ladies of the Camellias,” which opens at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in July.

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And, in her spare time, she is working on a screenplay for “The White Rose” and a libretto for an opera composed by Thea Musgrave called “Bolivar,” starring Placido Domingo, that is set to open at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in September, 1993.

Then there is a new play she’s writing, tentatively called “Bones,” that has been commissioned by the Old Globe.

With this kind of schedule, Garrett-Groag said, she is glad she is neither married (she was divorced years ago after a two-year marriage) nor has children.

“I think of falling in love as a major plague right now. I would shoot the bastard (I might fall in love with)--it would jam everything! And, as for children, where would I put them? In my suitcase?” she asked, miming the opening of a suitcase with a smile.

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Garrett-Groag, who is in her early 40s, may be a theater workaholic now, but she was not born to this life. In fact it was her family’s greatest fear that she would choose a profession “so vulgar and common,” she says.

A sheltered product of Catholic boarding schools, she grew up in Buenos Aires with a father who had fled Austria just before Hitler’s 1938 takeover of the country and a mother of Italian descent. It was her memory of her father, who died when she was just 14, that propelled her interest in “The White Rose.”

“I find it extraordinary that in the heart of absolute evil there was absolute good. I don’t have the courage to do what they did,” she said of the students she profiled in her play.

Although no one in her father’s wealthy, aristocratic family supported Hitler, their response was either to flee, as her father did, or to hide behind the walls of their estates, sending the servants out if they so much as needed groceries.

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But the Jewish members of their family--with whom her father’s family had intermarried--were mostly wiped out.

Garrett-Groag grew up speaking her father’s German, her mother’s Italian and Argentine Spanish, as well as French--because that was the language her parents and their in-laws had in common.

Her grandmother, who died in 1966, prayed she would never set foot on stage. But her interest in acting grew, and she studied French theater in a graduate program at Northwestern University and performed in every show she could.

A Hollywood agent spotted her during a Northwestern University production of “A Lion in Winter” in the early 1970s, when she was just 21, and, with some encouragement, she set off for Hollywood. But she didn’t like it there.

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Her agents asked her to change her name from the Groag to a more Americanized Garrett, which she did (she is now trying to ease back into the Groag by hyphenating it with Garrett). And she performed in television, playing a teacher in the old Bob Newhart show, but she didn’t like most of the roles they sent her up for. So she fired them.

Now she can’t believe she was so crazy as to get rid of them.

“I think I put them into shock. They thought I was from Mars--and I was. I was from another world. A girl who was in boarding school all of her life. . . . My family was old-fashioned even by old-fashioned standards.”

In the theater she found her talents nurtured at places like the Old Globe, which she says “brought me up” and the Mark Taper Forum, where she is now a member of the Antaeus Project, an independent group of actors working out plans for a continuing relationship with the theater.

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Both theaters have given her the opportunity to stretch, she says, and she’s grateful to them. At the Globe, she says, “Jack O’Brien (artistic director) and Craig Noel (executive producer) and Tom Hall (managing director) . . . took me, this kind of a little foreign nerd in my 20s, and Craig said, ‘What are we going to do with you?’ and he taught me the ABCs of theater. I have learned more from them than I’ve learned in school.”

At the Globe, she was first hired as an actress in 1980. She performed in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” under the direction of Craig Noel, now executive producer at the Globe, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Fanlights/Los soles truncos"--San Diego’s first bilingual production. She even performed in the workshop production of “La Fiaca” in 1987 as Martha, the wife of the man who decides to stop going to work. Martha will be played here by Cristina Soria and the man, Nestor, will be played by John Kassir.

In 1988 they hired her as a director for “The Granny” and in 1991 produced her play “The White Rose,” only her second. This year she was named an associate artist at the theater.

If there seems to be a wide range of shows on Garrett-Groag’s resume--from the Argentine “La Fiaca” to the German setting of “The White Rose” to the quintessentially American tale of “The Kentucky Cycle"--that’s how she likes it. Garrett-Groag sees universal meaning in all of these subjects.

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Which is why she likes “La Fiaca.” While it has never been performed in English in this country (except for the Globe workshop production), it has been done in 17 languages worldwide for good reason, she said.

“The subject interests me because it’s not relegated to a country or a political system. We all have to work to eat. And most of the people who work don’t like what they do. What happens to anyone who does 9 to 5, people who spend one-half to one-third of their lives just trying to pay bills? What is given up? What is lost? Why did we invent the phrase TGIF, why do we wish our lives away like that? I’m interested in questions that have difficult answers.”

Playwright Talesnik clearly is interested in seeing what she does with his work; he is coming here from Argentina to see the show next week.

Garrett-Groag said that, even though she is sometimes jealous of Talesnik’s main character’s abstention from labor, she remains immunized from la fiaca through her intense love for her work.

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Which doesn’t mean she won’t someday catch la fiaca and just stop and stay in bed with that Vogue magazine or Rendell mystery, she says with a smile.

But not until she has the time.


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