You couldn’t find two more different people than flamboyant writer Truman “In Cold Blood” Capote and plain-spoken World War II President Harry S. “The Buck Stops Here” Truman.
But Tom Frye and Ray Wills, two professional actors who also are Wichita theater teachers, have found a way to “marry” the two into a program called “Twice Truman” that they hope to turn into a cottage industry that will tour universities, community groups and small theaters across the country.
Each will be performing a one-man show directed by the other in an efficient, practical, symbiotic relationship. Frye will perform “Tru” by Jay Presson Allen, directed by Wills, and Wills will perform “Give ’em Hell, Harry” by Samuel Gallu, directed by Frye.
“And if people want to do a talk-down after the performances, they’ll have both the star and the director of both shows immediately available in just the two of us,” Frye said. “It couldn’t be easier.”
The two also will be using the same minimalist set consisting of desk, chair and window for convenience, but it will be dressed with different props and costumes to create their individualized atmospheres.
“Twice Truman” will have preview performances at Wichita State University during the next two weeks to finalize the shows as well as benefit the Audrey Needles Scholarship Fund, which honors one of the WSU pioneer theater faculty who died earlier this year. Tickets are $15, with discounts for students.
After that, they will be taking their shows on the road – perhaps 10 to 15 weekends a year – while working around their teaching schedules. Frye and Wills, who have been working on this idea for more than a year, said there have been pre-bookings at seven stops so far, from the University of Illinois to community theaters in North Carolina, Massachusetts and New Jersey and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.
Because Wills and Frye are Actors Equity professionals with Broadway and regional credentials, they say there is interest at professional theaters in Los Angeles and New York where they have worked previously.
“After 30 years in the business, I discovered I have a lot of contacts,” said Wills, whose agent is based in Los Angeles.
For Frye, a longtime Wichita theater teacher at both the high school and college level, performing “Tru” is a chance to complete a mission he began 13 years ago that was halted by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and the subsequent launch of the Iraq War.
“I had performed it three times, once directed by the playwright herself, with the idea of taking it to off-Broadway,” Frye said. “But then 9/11 happened and everything in New York theater just came to a halt,” said Frye, who subsequently performed in the national tour of “42nd Street” and numerous regional shows.
Here in Wichita, he teaches at Wichita State University and Kapaun Mount Carmel Catholic High School, resumed performing on local stages and became a playwright for original comedies at Mosley Street Melodrama.
For Wills, a Wichita native and Broadway veteran of such shows as “The Producers,” “Big” and “Anna Karenina,” bringing Harry S. Truman to life represents a new chapter in his career, one that began a little more than a year ago when he stepped away from the spotlight to take a sabbatical in Wichita.
“I hadn’t lost my passion for performing, but I had lost my passion for the pursuit,” Wills said of his 25 years in New York. Wills graduated from WSU in 1982 and received his master’s at Brandeis University. He was a frequent performer on New York-based TV series such as “Law & Order” and “The Guiding Light,” and for 2½ years did TV in Los Angeles where he had a recurring role on “90210.”
“I knew I could do other things. The question was should I? Performing wasn’t quite enough anymore. I felt I wanted to give back,” Wills said.
The timing proved serendipitous. He was quickly offered a chance to open the new Forum Theatre in Wichita with his one-man take on “Give ’em Hell, Harry” while teaching acting at Newman University. The idea was to take a year off to decompress and re-evaluate, and then plunge back in.
“But I’ve been so happy – and busy – over the past year that I haven’t thought about doing anything else yet. I’ve been directing, acting and teaching at Newman, WSU and Butler (Community College) and recently started co-teaching with Tom (Frye) at Kapaun Mount Carmel,” Wills said. He also is launching an “Acting for the Camera” class at WSU next year.
“I’ve been able to do my thing on my terms and I’ve been able to give back. Right now, I’m perfectly content. As Dorothy famously said: ‘There’s no place like home.’”
Frye and Wills worked together on local stages back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, from a nightclub act to Music Theatre of Wichita’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Frye was the Wizard and Wills was the Tin Man. Both say they have developed a “shorthand” that allows them to work together efficiently. Their joint “Twice Truman” project just seemed to fall into place as the right idea at the right time.
“When Ray first came back to town, the people at the Forum wanted us to do ‘The Odd Couple’ together,” Frye said. “But I countered with having Ray do ‘Give ’em Hell, Harry,’ which I had been wanting to direct for a long time. It was so successful that we wondered what else we could do together. When I brought up ‘Tru,’ we realized we had something special. He could direct me and I could direct him. And so, here we are.”
About Truman Capote, Frye said that the writer most famous for “In Cold Blood” about Kansas’ notorious Clutter murders, was “a mixed bag of tricks” whose descent into alcohol, drugs and narcissism was “not a fun trip, but interesting.”
“I do like him because he was not a bad person. He had problems crop up all through his life. He struggled with abandonment by his mother and with his homosexuality,” Frye said. “He became famous as a writer, but later said that he had become famous for being famous. ‘In Cold Blood’ pushed him over the edge.”
Despite Capote’s personal failings, his enduring legacy will be his writing, Frye said.
“His words are just wonderful. He labored over sentences to just make them flow. Many of the lines in this script are his,” Frye said. “He could capture the world in a sentence.”
About Harry S. Truman, Wills said he “absolutely loves him” because of his directness and decisiveness.
“He was refreshingly honest. He was one of the last just plain people in power. He was one of us,” Wills said. “He was a common man who found himself in a job (as president) that he didn’t ask for, and yet he took charge and ran it like a business. He even referred to the people as his ‘clients.’ He said he would get things done – and he did. In today’s polarized politics, that would be a miracle.”
Wills said that the sometimes salty Truman was “good-humored, decent and funny” with a work ethic that made him “extremely worthwhile.”
“He’s the sort of likable character that I could play forever,” Wills said. “Hal Holbrook has made a life career playing ‘Mark Twain Tonight.’ I wouldn’t mind doing that with Harry.”