BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Michael Edwards and Amanda Collins have been getting to know each other very well. They are starring in Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's one-act play for two actors, When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable), which opens this weekend at American Stage.
"A two-person play makes you very close," says Collins of the rehearsals. "It's a good thing we like each other."
Edwards, 66, portrays an old man in a prison cell, and Collins, 29, is a character called the Interviewer, who grills him about a murder he committed. The play, not often staged, is relatively late Shepard, written by the playwright and his longtime collaborator, Chaikin, for an arts festival held in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The old man is a former chef, and the play includes plenty of talk about food.
"Doing this play makes me so hungry," Collins said. "We run lines a lot while eating. Going home at night, I think: What can I make?"
The writing about food is meant to serve a higher purpose. "At the end, there is a beautiful speech about peeling a mango," director Todd Olson, 49, said. "It's an allegory. It seems like a simple speech on peeling a mango, but it is really about the way to grow up, about kindness, love and respect, about the way people should treat people, should treat the land. There's a real harmony about it."
Edwards find the descriptions of food and eating in the play highly sensual. "Not just eating, but dining," he said. "The chef talks about hearing the muffled sounds of people having conversations over dinner, glasses tinkling, laughter. It's all about the event of a meal."
"Those experiences around food are key," Olson added. "I think the great things in life happen around food. I always think of St. Pete as a foodie town. I think the dining experience will resonate with people."
Full disclosure: The lunchtime interview last Friday was done over food, takeout Thai in the theater's lobby.
Shepard, who turns 70 in November, ranks with August Wilson and David Mamet as one of the most important playwrights of his generation, but his theater career seems to be in eclipse these days. With more than 50 plays to his credit, his masterpieces — perhaps Buried Child, True West and Fool for Love — date to the 1980s or earlier.
For most people, he is now probably better known as an actor, with high-profile roles in such movies as Days of Heaven, The Right Stuff and Crimes of the Heart. This year Shepard is slated to be onscreen in August: Osage County, as part of a cast that also includes Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. He plays the alcoholic patriarch Beverly Weston, the role that Edwards played in American Stage's hit production of the Tracy Letts play in 2011.
"I think the case can be made that his career has been kind of diffuse," Olson said. "I think he gravitated to film because it was so much more lucrative than theater."
Productions of Shepard plays have been few and far between in the Tampa Bay area. Until now American Stage hadn't done one since True West in the 1985-86 season.
"It was nice to find this late Shepard play that is listenable and producible," Olson said, acknowledging that the language of his plays can be pretty mysterious.
The original production of the Shepard-Chaikin play (it was directed by Chaikin, founder of the legendary Open Theater, who died in 2003) featured a pianist. At American Stage, Olson planned to include recordings of Daniel Lanois and the Wailin' Jennys for music between the scenes.
When the World Was Green was programmed to run in repertory with The Amish Project, the one-woman play by Jessica Dickey about a schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania that opens April 12 at American Stage. "They are meant to complement each other," said Olson, who is directing both. "For about two weeks in April we will run them in rep."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.