Arts & Culture

Ray Wills takes on new challenge playing ‘Barrymore’

“Barrymore” stars Ray Wills and depicts legendary actor John Barrymore.
“Barrymore” stars Ray Wills and depicts legendary actor John Barrymore.

Six years after he played President Truman in the one-man show “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” for the Forum Theatre, Ray Wills is back with another solo performance in “Barrymore.”

“I like it,” quipped the Wichita native and veteran of Broadway’s “The Producers,” “Big” and “Anna Karenina” – “because most of the time I can get along with the cast.”

“Barrymore” depicts legendary actor John Barrymore attempting a 1942 revival of his acclaimed 1920s part as the title character in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

The play takes place on stage while Barrymore is rehearsing.

“He’s trying to make a comeback as Richard III, but he’s in his 60s,” Wills said. “He’s an alcoholic, he’s trying to remember his lines and he’s scared. He’s reminiscing about his whole life and career instead of rehearsing.”

Essentially a one-man show, an offstage voice of a prompter is played by Ted Dvorak. “It’s an interesting device – very, very theatrical,” Wills said.

“Barrymore” takes place just a few months before the actor’s death at age 60.

“It’s almost like he knows the end is coming, but he doesn’t know how to face it,” said Wills, 58.

Forum artistic director Kathryn Page Hauptman has been a fan of “Barrymore” since she saw Christopher Plummer’s Tony Award-winning role as the actor on Broadway in the mid-1990s.

“I totally loved it, the theatricality of it, the message, the story, the information on Barrymore,” she said. “I thought it would be a perfect show for Ray at this time in his life.”

Although the Barrymore name is one of the legendary acting families in theater history – from John and his siblings Lionel and Ethel to John’s granddaughter, Drew Barrymore – Hauptman and Wills said the play is not just for theater lovers.

“You don’t have to know anything about him, you don’t even have to like him,” Hauptman said. “It has a broader message, a universal message – what happens to a man or woman when they reach the end of their life and there’s a feeling of uselessness?

“There’s a lot more there than just a story about an actor,” she added.

“It’s just a theater story, but it’s funny and it’s poignant,” Wills said.

Wills said he became more of a fan of John Barrymore after researching for the role. Barrymore detoured his motion picture fame into acclaimed performances of “Richard III” and “Hamlet.”

“At that time, all the actors who did Shakespeare were still doing the old-fashioned, Edwardian presentational (performances),” Wills said. “Barrymore decided he would just tell the story and speak the words naturally. All of a sudden people were like, ‘Oh my God, we understand this!’”

Directing “Barrymore” is Mark Mannette, who has been on the theater faculty at Newman University with Wills for the past six years.

This is the second time Mannette has directed a one-man show.

“It’s tricky because you’re basically focusing on one performer quite a bit,” said Mannette, in his third time directing Wills.

Mannette said he enjoys directing his colleague and friend.

“We know each other so well and we have a sense of how each other likes to work,” Mannette said. “Trust is a big factor.”

“Mark is a scholar of Shakespeare, and it’s been wonderful to have that,” Wills said. “We tell our students, never say a word on stage if you don’t know what it means. And it’s especially true of Shakespeare.”

Wills said he enjoys the challenge of re-creating Barrymore in “Barrymore.”

It’s what I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “It’s a challenge to climb that mountain, and you have to rely on yourself, so it’s a test. And it’s enjoyable to face that challenge.

“What is acting if you’re not pushing yourself to new challenges?”

‘BARRYMORE’

When: Nov. 1-11; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Wilke Center, First United Methodist Church, 332 E. 1st St., Wichita

Tickets: $17 for opening night, $23 for Thursdays and Sundays, $25 for Fridays-Saturdays, by calling 618-0444

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