Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1995
Israel Horovitz has written a bushel of plays set in Gloucester, Mass., a working-class town that isn’t all that far — or different — from Bucksport, Maine, where director Martin Gerrish grew up. Perhaps that’s what attracted Gerrish to Horovitz’s one-act, “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard”, which opens this month at Gerrish’s Octad-One Productions in College Grove (April 21-May 21).
Or maybe it was the central male character, a crusty old curmudgeon who, as a teacher, flunked many of his students, including the central female character, a crusty young widow applying for a job as live-in housekeeper for the ailing academic.
“The play is delightfully funny,” says Gerrish, “as well as being serious. It parallels a great deal my own career. I taught for 25 years (he started the drama department at Grossmont College in 1961, and stayed). According to some of my students, I was as difficult as Jack Brackish, the main character in the play…”
Former students will soon see just how similar the two characters are. Unable to find a suitable actor to play Brackish, Gerrish took on the role himself. He delegated the directing responsibilities to his onetime student and Octad protégé, Don Pugh (though he fully intended the directing to be “a cooperative affair”).
“I’m not really that interested in acting,” Gerrish insists, though he spent many summers at the Old Globe, where executive producer Craig Noel considered him to be “a wonderful performer” (and also “an imaginative director”). “But there’s a large scarcity of old men in the area to play these roles. Most men are 45 to 55 and won’t consider playing an 80 year-old. It’s insulting.”
At 68, Gerrish is not beyond playing 80. “I played old men all my life.” Was he old-ish early? “I was baldish early,” he quips. His close-cropped, snow-white beard ably compensates, making him look distinguished, avuncular. Three years ago, in his last onstage outing, he gave a compelling performance as George Bernard Shaw in “Dear Liar”, portraying the brilliant writer/iconoclast from age 40 to 80. “I’d much rather direct than act,” he avers. “I can’t do both; I can’t be in two places at the same time.” But once (“about a hundred years ago”), at the Globe, under duress, he took over for the director during the second week of rehearsals of “The Runner Stumbles”, in which he also performed. “I didn’t like it, but it came out all right, I guess. I won awards for directing and for acting.”
Gerrish is just re-emerging from a hibernation of sorts, during which he continued to direct, and to design all the sets for the theater company he founded in 1976 with his wife, Elaine. But his heart really wasn’t in it. Two years ago, he lost Elaine to a virulent, inoperable brain tumor.
“She’s terribly missed,” he said of the gracious, charming lady who was his costumer, advisor, ticket-taker, opening night caterer and confidante for 43 years. “She made many of the decisions. She also handled the political side of the theater. I’m not very good at politics. She was very good at greeting people, making them feel at home… Her illness was very sudden. Extremely fast and terribly degrading. I kept her at home the whole time; we both didn’t want her in the hospital. I stayed with her as much as I could… Her type of cancer multiplied itself every seven days. It was rapid and quick and shocking. When somebody just leaves like that, so abruptly, it’s like the core slipped out of you.”
Gerrish was just pulling himself together when something else began to pull him apart. Last fall, he was told he had an aortic aneurysm, which required very major surgery.
“This is beginning to sound like a Shakespeare tragedy,” he sighs. “For a while there, I was beginning to think I was the new Job… I’m just starting to get my energy back now.” He’ll need it, for the voluminous Brackish role, which was played by Burgess Meredith in 1984 and Jason Robards in 1991. But he also has to gear up for Octad’s 20th anniversary season, opening next fall.
His theater, the dream of his lifetime, is flourishing, with its own 60-seat space, consistent increases in sales and subscriptions, and no red ink in the ledger book. Gerrish’s list of “things I always wanted to do in the theater” is growing shorter. At this time in his life, wouldn’t playing King Lear be a delicious challenge? “I really don’t think so,” says the director and ever-reluctant actor. “But in saying that, I’ll probably wind up doing it next year.” Stay tuned.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.