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Arts and Entertainment

MSU Alums Return, Reunite for SCT Production

(Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Springfield Contemporary Theatre's September production, Christopher Durang's humorous riff on the plays of Chekov, "Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike," reunites Missouri State University alumni Julie Bloodworth, Jack Laufer, who's been seen recently on "Masters of Sex" and "Mad Men," and Oscar nominee Tess Harper to play three middle-aged siblings in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Durang’s comedy won the 2013 Tony Award for best play and receives its Springfield-area premiere September 11th at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza. The Christopher Durang comedy won the 2013 Tony Award for best play.

The MSU ties don’t stop there. The pair will be joined by MSU alumni Terry Bloodworth, director, Julie Bloodworth, playing Masha opposite Harper’s Sonia and Laufer’s Vanya, Whitney Russell-Ice, as Nina, and Teresa Ayres, the production’s costume designer. Theatre and dance junior Matt Murphy will play Spike; and Helen Groves, a former Missouri State instructor, will take on the role of Cassandra.

This production of Durang’s comedy is actually the culmination of 40 years of friendship—“family,” if you will.  Jack Laufer, a 1976 MSU theatre and dance alum, just wrapped up his third season on the Showtime series Masters of Sex, and had a recurring role on A&E’s Mad Men.  He was the one who came up with the plot to produce this show here in Springfield with his old pals. “I read the play when it first opened in New York, and I loved it. And I thought this would be an interesting show for Springfield Contemporary Theatre to do—there were parts for a lot of people I knew! I sent the play to Terry and Julie (Bloodworth) and they read it and liked it... and we’re here.” 

Oscar nominee Tess Harper (MSU ’72), who has recently had recurring roles in Breaking Bad and Crash, was next on the list.  Laufer laughs and says, “We live 5 minutes from each other (in California) and we see each other all the time.”  Tess notes that they and the Bloodworths were all here at what was then SMSU around the same time performing in Tent Theatre, Craig Hall Coger Theatre, and Springfield Little Theatre.

Brother Vanya and sister Sonya share the family home, where they bicker and complain about their lives.  Suddenly their movie star sister Masha swoops in with her new boy-toy Spike, which flares up old resentments, eventually leading to threats to sell the house. 

Tess Harper plays Sonya (no, not the movie star character Masha—that’s Julie Bloodworth!). “The amazing thing about the siblings is they were raised by parents who were professors—probably professors of literature or theatre, so the children were all named for Chekov characters. You don’t need to know Chekov to enjoy it, but it’s a lovely send-up of Chekov.”  Sonya and Vanya became caretakers of the parents when the latter began suffering from dementia, so they’ve never really left the family home... while Masha “went out and had a very successful career.”  When she comes for a visit, all the petty jealousies and resentments resurface.  “You go home to visit your family, and suddenly you’re ten years old again!” says Tess Harper.

Vanya has always been the family “peacemaker—that was his role,” according to Jack Laufer.  “He’s the middle child,” adds Tess.

Before the discussion got too serious (or “Chekovian”!), Jack, Tess and Terry were quick to point out that this is, after all, an uproarious farce.  Says director Terry Bloodworth, “Durang, the author, says himself that it is a Chekov play... if you were to put Chekov in a blender and blend it with American pop culture. I think we were all drawn to the play by the cleverness of the dialogue, the sincerity, and the lack of irony.  It is what it is.”  Terry was also intrigued by an ad for the original 2013 production in the New York Times that depicted the cast dressed as cartoon characters(!). (There’s a costume party, you see....)

I was intrigued by the fact that it’s Julie Bloodworth, and not Tess Harper, who is playing the movie-actress character Masha.  According to Terry Bloodworth that was “Tess’s and Jack’s choice, because the relationship of the siblings very much mirrors their relationship over the years.”  Tess adds, “We are like siblings—we bicker and we throw things at each other... and we just sit and keep each other company and say nothing sometimes.  I never got to act on stage here with either Julie or Jack, and it was especially the chance to do the opening scene with Jack that I just fell in love with, because that kind of mirrors our (real-life) conversations!” 

In fact, this is the first time Jack and Tess have ever worked together in a professional (i.e. non-college theatre) setting. But of course they have both done numerous Hollywood films and TV series and movies. Tess feels that she’ll “live forever on Lifetime and Hallmark” due to the numerous TV movies she’s worked in for both cable networks.  And as we mentioned, Jack has had recurring roles on high-profile Showtime series.

Tess says she’s thinking more and more of retirement.  “The movie business and the television business have changed radically with the advent of new technologies.  And after a while you get bored. How many mothers and grandmothers can you play?  But I had a great time on Breaking Bad.  I’ve had a wonderful career.”  Jack Laufer doesn’t buy it, however—“She’s not retiring!” “I’m threatening!” insists Tess. “I’m now officially a senior citizen—I started Medicare!  I’m telling you, look out world—I may just get on a cruise ship!”  Jack interjects, “Tell that to Betty White!”  But Tess admits that “none of the ladies (actresses) of my generation have quit—everybody’s still working. So it’s the still the same competitive pool.”

In addition to his film and TV roles over the years, Jack Laufer just acted in the Los Angeles premiere of the play Sons of the Prophet.  For Tess Harper, this production is her first time acting in a full stage production in some 25 years.

Both Laufer and Harper say they’re happy to be here, especially given the cool front that just moved in: in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles it hit 107 degrees the other day! “And we get to experience some rain—we’re so happy!” says Jack.

And they both have high praise for the talented pool of local actors who are available for productions such as this.  Says Tess, “if you need to be an actor, but you prefer to have a real life, this is a wonderful venue.  I think Springfield is so blessed with the depth of talent that they have.”

For his part, Terry Bloodworth has greatly enjoyed working with old friends again. “We worked for a couple of weeks with the local cast. And then when Jack and Tess arrived, it’s never easy integrating two casts like that.  But it was so much fun watching local people—gifted as they are—but they were nervous. ‘Oh, when the pros arrive, are they gonna look down (their noses at us)?’  I said, ‘Nooo....’  Tess laughs and finishes Terry’s sentence for him: “The pros are going to arrive and fall flat on their faces!”  They’re obviously having fun.  And Christopher Durang’s play is the perfect vehicle for them.