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A confident walk with ‘Heroes’

Special to The Times

When Thea Sharrock first read Tom Stoppard’s early draft of “Heroes” a few years ago, she immediately agreed to direct it. Then she took a look at Gerald Sibleyras’ “Le Vent des Peupliers,” the hit French play Stoppard translated into “Heroes,” and she liked the original a little better.

So she called Stoppard, who hadn’t worked on the play for about a year, and told him what she thought. “In essence, I wanted to go back to the French and stay as close to it as possible,” she says, “and he was fine with that once I explained why.”

Although she was only 28 at the time, she apparently had no problem suggesting rewrites to one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights. But that’s no surprise for a director hailed in the British press as a “theater whiz kid” and “one of London theater’s fastest-rising stars.” Sharrock’s staging of “Heroes,” which premiered in October 2005, was her third show on the West End in four years.

The tale of three World War I veterans adrift in a retirement home went on to win the Olivier Award for best new comedy last year. Sharrock, in turn, went on to direct two more London hits: “A Voyage Round My Father,” starring Derek Jacobi, and the high-profile revival of “Equus,” which opened last month starring the “Harry Potter” movies’ Daniel Radcliffe.

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Now Sharrock and “Heroes” are ensconced at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse, set for the play’s American premiere on Wednesday. Richard Benjamin, Len Cariou, George Segal and a 200-pound stone dog share the terrace of a military retirement home, trading stories of success, failure, fear, wrath and an over-controlling nun named Sister Madeleine. Benjamin plays Philippe, a man with shrapnel in his brain; Cariou is Henri, a fellow with a bad leg; and Segal inhabits the amusing but cantankerous Gustave.

At the Geffen a few days before previews start, the slim, attractive director moves like a gazelle as she rushes down a theater aisle after an onstage run-through of the play. A few minutes later, she jumps effortlessly onto the stage to talk with her actors. That the three stars were famous before the 30-year-old director was born doesn’t seem to faze her as she moves from one to the next, dispensing suggestions.

She and Benjamin review the profound weariness of his character. Crossing the stage, she deflects Cariou’s worries about how many leaves should fall from a tree onstage to make his character’s sweeping them up seem logical. “She’s got all that energy,” observes Segal. “It is a B-12 shot for us.”

The director “exudes confidence without being arrogant,” adds London producer Dafydd Rogers, who has worked with Sharrock most of her career. “That’s why actors, and often senior actors, adore working with her. We’ve all met directors the same age as Thea who talk the talk and walk the walk, but do they have her talent?”

Born in London, Sharrock was raised in Kenya. When her family moved back to London, the teenage Sharrock was soon going to theater at least once a week. “It became like a drug,” she says. “I just wanted it more and more.”

She took off a year between high school and college to travel and work. She sent letters to both the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, and to London’s National Theatre, offering to work for free. Both were interested, and she spent six months at each before heading off to Oxford to study French and philosophy. She then spent 18 months assisting other directors and learning her craft.

Her big break came with the James Menzies-Kitchin Memorial Trust’s Young Director of the Year award in 2000, offering her the chance to direct a revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” at London’s Battersea Arts Centre. Her production had two national tours, winding up on the West End. There she soon caught the eye of producer David Pugh, who was looking for an associate director to take over new productions of his hit “Art” from the show’s original director, Matthew Warchus. Pugh gave her a call, and she says, “that was my second job.”

Pugh, who also produced “Equus,” long had his eye on the Geffen Playhouse as a likely U.S. venue for “Heroes.” When Geffen managing director Stephen Eich was in London to talk with Pugh about the show, says Sharrock, “he asked if I’d like to direct it. I said, ‘Very much, if we could make the timing work.’ It was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

So here she is in Los Angeles, a city she last visited as a child. Her year-old son, Misha, is off with Sharrock’s husband, Paul Handley, a production manager at London’s Royal Court, and her cellphone is always on. Clearly efficient as she combines a dinner break and interview, she consumes what she considers a typical American meal -- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, potato chips and root beer.

The American cast of “Heroes,” she says, has a different energy than the actors at Wyndham’s Theatre in London: John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and Ken Stott. It’s partly to do with the actors as individuals, she says, and partly because Benjamin and Segal have known each other for four decades. Sharrock also worked with Segal on “Art,” and, she says, “There’s something really nice about doing this here with George. He’s a very special guy.”

For Segal, the feeling is mutual. “She’s unflappable, she likes to laugh, and it’s always relaxed around her,” he says. “That she’s impeccably professional and highly disciplined goes without saying. We were three actors with different styles, and she neutralized all the differences. Suddenly we were all on the same page, talking the same language and laughing at the same things.”

Sharrock says she will return to a changed life in Britain after “Heroes” opens here. She has just ended a three-year tenure as artistic director of London’s small but prominent Gate Theatre, a post she took almost immediately after ending a similar three-year term at the Southwark Playhouse. “For the last year, I’ve been both in rehearsals and running the Gate,” says the director. “My plan now is to have a bit of a break, spend time with my son and adjust to a freelance life.”

There are “a few things floating around,” she concedes, “but after ‘Equus,’ I want to be sure the next thing is exactly right. You have to be careful with your choices, and you have to be brave. I’ve been an artistic director for six years, and out of a seven-year career, that’s quite a lot. You have to find the equilibrium.”

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‘Heroes’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: May 27

Price: $35 to $69

Contact: (310) 208-5454, (213) 365-3500


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