Called method acting, the performer inhabits the same emotional headspace as their character to create a more authentic portrayal. Some actors take it to extremes, staying in character even when cameras aren't rolling, or gaining or losing massive amounts of weight to fit an appearance. But how often do they have a psychologist diagnose them in character?
“We invited two clinical psychologists from the psychology department over, and gave them a list of the characters’ psychoses,” laughed Dr. Michael Boynton, an associate drama professor at JSU and the director of “The Curious Savage.”
“I was trying to get the actors to think about it in new and interesting ways, and figure out why the playwright made the choices he did.”
“Savage” is Boynton’s first play to direct at JSU, but his unusual methods come from his experience working on Broadway projects including the 2003 Tony Award-winner “Hairspray.”
“It's strange to think how I ever developed characters in prior shows,” said actor Dillion Everett, who plays caretaker Dr. Emmett in “Savage.”
The play’s story focuses on the patients of a sanitarium called The Cloisters — Florence, Fairy May, Jeffrey, Hannibal, Mrs. Paddy and Ethel Savage, whose stepchildren had her committed in a bid to steal away her hidden fortune.
Each patient is warm and likeable, but broken in some way: Jeffrey believes his face is scarred from a wartime plane crash that killed his men, Fairy is a compulsive liar and Hannibal fancies himself to be a world-class violinist (spoiler: he isn't).
The play debuted in 1950, during a time when mental illness remained a relative mystery and unwell family members were sometimes shipped off to asylums.
“Nowadays we talk about our psychoses and medication openly,” said Boynton. “But back in those days, if you went to therapy, something was seriously wrong with you.”
The patients are treated with care in the story, never exploited for cheap laughs. They have moments that are funny, sad and beautiful, as each describes the “eggshell world” that he or she inhabits.
“They work so hard to create these fantasy illusions,” said Boynton. “The villains create a world, too, but it's the opposite of the patients.”
Where Boynton took care to keep the performances of the patients dignified, the Savage stepchildren are cartoony abstracts, silly and senseless when compared to the rest of the characters. Lily Belle marries for money, Titus is a sleazy senator and Samuel a crooked judge.
Boynton had the actors portraying the stepchildren draw on the physical comedy of “The Three Stooges” and the eccentric evil of “101 Dalmatians” antagonist Cruella de Vil for their movement in the play.
“The patients have funny moments, but they're very real,” he said. “It's the three stepchildren, the supposedly ‘normal’ people, who are completely over the top.”
When Ethel reveals a false location to her hidden fortune, the panicked stepchildren are good for a laugh, but they also parody real-world greed and corruption.
“The play really comes down to who is the most human,” said Boynton. “Instead of greedily grasping for everything, what if we were just nice to each other? I would love it if audiences took that away from the play.”
IF YOU GO…
WHAT: JSU presents “The Curious Savage”
WHEN: Oct. 17-20, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Ernest Stone Center Theater, corner of 11th Street and Church Ave., Jacksonville
TICKETS: $10 for adults, $8 for JSU personnel and senior citizens, $5 for students and military.
INFO: Call the box office at 256-782-5648