Broadway veteran Ray Wills figures that a combination of middle-age crisis and Jason Alexander are bringing him back to his Wichita hometown to kick off the second season for the Forum Theatre with his one-man showcase, “Give ’Em Hell, Harry!”
“I haven’t lost my passion for performing, but I have lost my passion for the ‘pursuit,’ ” said Wills, now 52, who was an in-demand working actor in New York for 25 years. His career has included a wildly successful two-and-a-half-year run on Broadway with Mel Brooks’ record-setting “The Producers.”
“I knew I could do other things. The question was should I. I had hit the big 5-0 and was starting to feel a little unfulfilled. Performing wasn’t quite enough anymore,” said Wills, a 1982 Wichita State University theater graduate. He earned his master’s from Brandeis University near Boston in 1988 and got his feet wet as an adjunct professor in New Jersey before heading to Broadway.
“Once I got my MFA (master of fine arts), I had a good solid profession to fall back on. I was inspired to be a teacher because of the good teachers I had at WSU, like Dick Welsbacher, Joyce Cavarozzi and Mary Jane Teall,” Wills said. “The plan was to try acting for a year or so to see what happens, then go into the classroom with some practical experience to impart.”
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But one successful Broadway show led to another and to another — including “Big: The Musical” and “Anna Karenina” — and suddenly, it’s a quarter of a century later.
“I was sort of a victim of my own success. There was a five-year period where I literally had only one day a week off. I tried mixing it up with TV appearances (‘Law & Order’ and others). I even went to Los Angeles for two and a half years. But I kept coming back to the idea that I had done pretty much everything I wanted to do.”
So, how does Alexander — best known as crabby George Costanza of “Seinfeld” — figure into all this?
In the Los Angeles production of “The Producers,” Alexander took over the lead. Wills became understudy for Alexander.
“My friend Jason could tell I was unsatisfied, so he advised me to go someplace livable and teach for awhile, to use my life experience to give back and recharge my batteries in a friendly environment,” Wills said. “Suddenly, it all made sense.”
Wills contacted his old Wichita buddy Tom Frye, a longtime theater teacher, from Wichita Southeast High School to WSU, who also ventures out for the occasional professional job or tour to keep his hand in the game. Frye opened some doors at WSU, Friends University, Newman University and Butler Community College for Wills to give students master classes on the practicalities of being a working actor.
But while he’s here, Wills plans to give back to more than local students. He’s also available for the next year or so for local shows, beginning with “Give ’Em Hell, Harry!,” which opens this week at the Forum Theatre.
The one-man show by playwright Samuel Gallu was made famous by James Whitmore in 1975 both on stage and in an Oscar-nominated filmed version. It’s a wide-ranging portrait of President Harry S. Truman — as president, politician, man, husband and father — in his own colorful, sometimes salty, always plain-spoken words. Truman owned up to his decisions by institutionalizing the motto: “The Buck Stops Here.”
Directing is Frye. Set and lighting design is by Tyler Lessin, with props by Aaron Profit. Costumes are by Kathy Page-Hauptman, who is producing with Rick Bumgardner.
Wills said he’s never tackled a one-man show before.
“I should have trepidation, but it’s such a good script. I can trust the material because it’s real,” Wills said of the monologues, adapted from Truman’s writings, letters and speeches. “It’s real words by the real man. I’m just the conduit for Harry’s thoughts. How can you go wrong?”
Both Wills and Frye said that the Truman portrait is rivetingly timely, coming so close before the November presidential election.
“Truman said a lot of things that are still relevant today. He was the last president who wasn’t victimized by the media. He could say what he meant without all the spin. People appreciated that kind of honestly, that kind of strength,” Wills said.
Added Frye: “Harry Truman was one of the most down-to-earth presidents we ever had. He didn’t like or tolerate phonies. He could make tough decisions and stand by them. He wasn’t always popular, but he has come to be revered for his no-nonsense approach.”
This will be Wills’ first local performance since the mid-1990s, when he performed with groups including Music Theatre of Wichita and Wichita Community Theatre.