Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2001
George Flint likes to say he interrupted his acting career for 38 years to become a surgeon. “I guess I always considered surgery my day job,” he says with a laugh.
Flint has been through many changes, not least of which is his name. He entered Ohio State University as a pre-med student under his family name, Finkelstein. But he admittedly “did more acting than studying.” His theater friends — among which was recent Tony (Lifetime Achievement) Award-winner, Eileen Heckart — thought he couldn’t possibly go onstage with a name like Finkelstein. (This was 1941, after all). So he aimed for a kind of direct translation from the German: finkel + stein = ‘sparkling stone,’ which is roughly equivalent to Flint. [MARK: If you have to lose some more, I guess you could eliminate the next three lines, to the end of the graph – PBL] He wasn’t the family first, in theater or name-change. His father’s cousin, one of the many lovers of legendary actress/producer Eva Le Gallienne, was playwright Eva Kay Flint (nee Finkelstein).
He got his first taste of theater at age 16, playing Romeo in a high school production (“I even got to kiss the girl!”). Throughout college, Flint performed on campus and in summer stock in the Borscht Belt, where he did everything from Shakespeare to shtick — including something called Rip Van Finkle. But when graduation came around, he made the “sensible career choice,” selecting surgery over the stage.
By 1989, he’d had enough. And when George Flint is ready for a change, he goes the whole hog. He retired, got divorced, left behind a lifetime in New York and moved to San Diego. He went back for the theater training he’d never had, spending summers at the British-American Drama Academy in Oxford, England and Stanford, CA., and putting in time with Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, MA. He spent ten years on the Board of Directors of the Actors’ Alliance of San Diego, five years as President and Chairman of the Board.
Last year, at age 80, he reinvented himself again. He became a newlywed and a producer. He married his longtime love, Vally Chamberlain, and with a good deal of his own money, started the brand new Renaissance Theatre Company.
“It’s a renaissance for me personally,” Flint explains, “and also a renaissance of the great 20th century plays which are not seen that often.” Flint’s idea is to revivify classics in professional locally-fueled productions. His premiere offering was Waiting for Godot, which gained wide acclaim. Next up is another one of the Top Ten Plays of the Century (according to a panel of 800 theater artists and critics): Long Day’s Journey into Night, which, says Flint, “is an enormously influential piece of theater, and yet, to my knowledge, it’s never been done in San Diego.”
In approaching a new production, Flint says he tries “to simultaneously find a play and the actors and director that fit it.” This time out, he’s snagged Globe Theatre regular Jonathan McMurtry and acclaimed local actor/director Rosina Reynolds, in addition to Sean Robert Cox, and L.A. actor Tim Smith, under the directorial hand of David Ellenstein. The design team is a winner, too: North Coast Rep’s Marty Burnett (set), Jeanne Reith (costumes) and Karen Filijan (lighting).
Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill’s fourth Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, was written in 1939-41 but wasn’t produced until 1956, three years after his death. It’s a shattering domestic drama, a painfully autobiographical epic depicting a day in the dreary life of one dysfunctional family.
The patriarch of the Tyrones (like the O’Neills) is a celebrated (often inebriated) actor; the older son is a drunkard and wastrel, the younger son is frail and consumptive and the mother is a morphine addict. In struggling to deaden the pain of lost dreams and illusions, they seek drug-induced oblivion, but they’re not anesthetized enough to keep from tearing at each other and demonstrating just how symbiotic they are and how successfully they’ve managed to destroy each other’s lives.
One of the most overtly subjective of playwrights, O’Neill was an emotional hemophiliac whose family-inflicted wounds never healed. He suffered from lifelong guilt, partly because his mother, a shy, devout Catholic (like Mary Tyrone), innocently became a drug addict as a result of his birth. In Long Day’s Journey, he lets Jamie Tyrone speak for him, on learning of his mother’s addiction: “God, it made everything in life seem rotten!”
According to O’Neill biographer Normand Berlin, “Long Day’s Journey is the finest American play ever written, not because O’Neill revealed himself and his family in it, and not because it provided a catharsis for him, but rather because the play itself, the work of art, touches us deeply, releases moments of large emotion in us… transcends personal drama.”
Recognizing that such dramatic intensity may be a hard sell, producer Flint is philosophical. “It’s expensive, it’s a big risk, but it’s also very very gratifying to be able to be involved in the creation of something so great that I want to see it done well.” Flint had seen both Frederick March and Jason Robards perform in the classic and then he saw it again two years ago in London. “It blew me away,” he confesses. “Here’s a play which sounds so depressing and so long, but it just knocked me out. Anything that moves me to tears, I enjoy.” That’s our man Flint.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.