Read Between the Lines

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year, the Rubicon Theatre Company produced A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" with a rotating cast of local and international celebrity readers. This year, the group ups the ante.

On Sunday and Monday, again as a benefit for its school outreach program, Rubicon is producing Gurney's "Ancestral Voices." Like "Love Letters," the play will be presented with the actors seated and reading from scripts. Unlike "Love Letters," which is written for an actor and actress, the newer work involves five performers.

Set in Gurney's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1940s, "Ancestral Voices" observes three generations of a financially comfortable WASP family shaken by a scandalous divorce.

The final lineup hadn't been announced by deadline, but two players who are confirmed to play Sunday or Monday night boast Academy Award nominations: Anthony Franciosa for his supporting role in "A Hatful of Rain," his 1957 motion picture debut; and JoBeth Williams for directing the 1995 short subject "On Hope."

"It's a terrific play," Franciosa said late last week. "[Gurney] has a marvelous ability to unfold a story with actors just reading."

Franciosa said he'd toured on and off for five years reading "Love Letters" with Loretta Swit, "mostly regional theaters and enjoying ourselves enormously. We also did a couple of cruises. They don't pay well but are a marvelous vacation."

Williams hadn't read the play when we spoke Friday but said Rubicon founders James O'Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns "have asked me several times to help them in certain situations. Unfortunately, I haven't been available before."

Although this will be her first Gurney play, Williams recently completed a stint in Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," another play in which the participants--three women--sit and read from scripts.

Both actors have lengthy filmographies, Franciosa's including "A Face in the Crowd," "Wild in the Wind," "The Long, Hot Summer" and roles opposite Ann-Margret, Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch, as well as the TV series "Matt Helm," "The Name of the Game" and "Finder of Lost Loves."

After breaking through, memorably, in "Kramer vs. Kramer," Williams starred in the first two "Poltergeist" films, "The Big Chill" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" among others, and has been featured in numerous TV movies, as well as starring in the series "The Client" and opposite John Laroquette in the neglected sitcom "Payne."

Both Williams and Franciosa started on the stage. He and Henry Silva were recruited by director Fred Zinnemann from the Broadway production of "A Hatful of Rain" (Franciosa appearing as drug addict Don Murray's protective brother). Before that, he had appeared in "End as a Man," then opposite Lee Grant in "The Wedding Breakfast," as well as on live television in the days when shows like "Studio One" and "Lux Video Theater" ruled the airwaves.

Williams, from Houston, attended Brown University in Providence, R.I. "I went to become a psychologist," she said, "but I knew that Providence had a professional repertory company. Brown didn't have a theater major, but they had a very active theater department, and I spent 2 1/2 years with the Trinity Repertory Theatre."

Clearly, neither Franciosa, Williams nor any of the other actors contributing to the benefit production are doing it for the money, or even for visibility--not in Ventura.

Williams probably has the key: "I remember back when I was in school, how exciting it was to see theater or an opera," she said. "Then, Trinity had an outreach program like Rubicon's, where we would do shows for kids. Years later, they'd come up to me and tell me how much the experience meant to them."

DETAILS

"Ancestral Voices" will be performed at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday at the Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Tickets, including a post-show reception, are $75, $65 for Rubicon season subscribers, and may be purchased at the theater box office or charged by telephone. For reservations or further information, including last-minute casting announcements, call 667-2900.

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Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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