Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Wyatt Fenner’s Journey to "Rest"

Wyatt Fenner, right, and William Francis McGuire in the Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Samuel D. Hunter's The Few.
A Mother’s Passage Connects to Rest

Olivia Johnson
In fall 2013, Olivia Johnson saw a change in her mother. At age 99, Alice Gedikian began to fade. It was a definite change from the vibrant woman who, 11 years earlier, had recuperated after a car hit her as she crossed the road, a near-fatal encounter.

Gedikian had lived alone in her Arcadia, Calif., condo until age 92. She still was, says Johnson, a “social dynamo” when the family moved Gedikian to a sunny, bright room in a nearby assisted living facility. Her new room included her “precious piano and her favorite pieces of furniture.”

But over the past 18 months, Johnson saw “this bright spirit, full of faith and positive energy” began to not recognize her daughters when they visited.  And when Johnson, a long-time supporter and friend of South Coast Repertory, first received a copy to read of the new play by Samuel D. Hunter called Rest, it hit home. Hard.

“It was painful,” Johnson recalls “But my heart said we have to honor Mom by supporting this magnificent play that tells this story so poignantly.”

Johnson, with her husband A. Andrew, is one of the Honorary Producers for the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest.

Rest is set in a retirement home in northern Idaho, which is in the process of shutting down. Only three patients remain and one of them is currently missing. Ninety-one-year-old Gerald, suffering from dementia, has disappeared, leaving his wife, Etta, and their friend, Tom, behind. The few remaining staff include the manager, two longtime employees and a 20-year-old cook, new to the job.

“As my mom was failing—a natural process at her age—we tried to surround her constantly with those things that were important in her life,” says Johnson. “We counted on music—her lifelong passion—to soothe her continually and to take her mind to a joyful place. As I read Rest, I saw what an important roles that both music and faith have within the play. That was a message to me!”

Fleeing war-torn Turkey as a child, with her widowed mother and sisters, Johnson’s mother had come to the United State for refuge. She ultimately married Aram and raised their family first in Detroit and then in Pasadena, surrounded by extended family.

They jointly owned and successfully ran Pasadena Shoetorium Shoe Repair. Widowed at 59, she came into her own—“blossomed”—as she took over their family business and found her niche. She became active in the local Chamber of Commerce and in numerous women’s business groups of that era. She was vibrant, Johnson says, until being struck by a car. Her determined spirit helped her make a remarkable recovery and lived for another dozen years.

But, last fall, the family feared that she might not make it to her centennial birthday. She did.

On Jan. 4, 2014, Alice Gedikian passed away, two days after her 100th birthday; that milestone birthday was a day that friends and loved ones “celebrated with joy,” says Johnson.

Olivia Johnson’s support of SCR’s production of Rest serves as an homage to her mother’s indomitable spirit.

Looking back to his arts-immersed childhood in Washington, D.C., actor Wyatt Fenner now acknowledges that a rabbit may have drawn him into acting.

While on a trip to the library with his mother, he saw a children’s theatre poster for The Velveteen Rabbit.

“I couldn’t read yet, but I recognized the image of the rabbit on the hilltop, with its ears flopped to the side,” Fenner recalls. He knew the story and image from audio cassettes his family listened to in their car.

Fenner in James and the Giant Peach.
“What’s a children’s theatre?” he asked, and she explained that it’s where kids put on plays based on fairy tales.

He told his mother that’s what he wanted to do, but he was still too young. So, a few years later—at age seven—he auditioned for a production of Sleeping Beauty and earned a role. “I just got wrapped up in it and haven’t stopped since. Theatre just speaks to me. Acting speaks to me.”

As a young actor, he found that the D.C.-area gave him plenty of opportunities to learn his art, and he worked with “some incredible people and theatre companies.” A fond memory is being part of Ford Theatre’s A Christmas Carol production when he portrayed one of the Cratchit children.

Fenner is becoming a well-known face to South Coast Repertory audiences. He is featured next as Ken in the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Last season, he was in Hunter’s The Whale. Fenner also has appeared in Shaw’s Misalliance, in the Pacific Playwrights Festival readings of The Few and Happy Face, the NewSCRipts reading of Spirit Control and the Theatre for Young Audiences productions of James and the Giant Peach and The Borrowers.

“I love to be surrounded by other intelligent, artistic people,” he says. “SCR is like that—about how we can make the world better by talking about things, exploring ideas.”

Sam Hunter’s play Rest is an SCR commission and written when SCR produced Hunter’s The Whale in the 2012-13 season. Hunter wrote the part of Ken for Fenner, who took part in its first reading on the day at The Whale opened at SCR.

“I got the play [Rest] and I fell in love with what Sam had written,” Fenner says.

Fenner and Helen Sadler in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale.
“Over the past few years, Wyatt and I have become artistic collaborators, but also good friends,” Hunter says. “So I think as I’ve gotten to know him both as an actor and as a person, it makes writing for him really rewarding. It’s like composing music for a musician who you know will play it brilliantly.”

Fenner says Hunter has made an impact on his work as an actor.

“He’s become a really good friend, an artist whom I admire and someone who has influenced my way of thinking and my life as a theatre artist,” Fenner says.  “Sometimes people come up in your life and profoundly impact you—Sam’s had that effect on me.

“Something I think is beautiful about the play is Sam’s profound ability to present us with where we are—not necessarily where you think you’d like to be,” Fenner continues. “You will experience what these characters are feeling and going through as only theatre can let you do. Sam has given us the chance to share so much through this play. It will give you a lot to think about that will remain with you for years.”

Fenner, Melanie Lora, Dakin Matthews and Amelia White in Misalliance.
Fenner is an alumnus of the University of Southern California. His recent credits include Bailey in the world premiere of Pluto at Actor’s Express Theatre, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, Slipping with Rattlestick West and performances at the Geffen Playhouse, Ahmanson Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Folger Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Theatre@Boston Court, A Noise Within and The Antaeus Company.  His television credits include “Veronica Mars” and “Bones.”

“Whatever I’m working on becomes such a huge part of me that I have really special relationship with every project that I engage in,” he explains, by way of not being able to name just one favorite production or project. “I really do appreciate the exploration that comes with every single part I play. It’s what’s in front of me and what my character engages with, it gives me a huge amount of experience to get to investigate every single one of them.”

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