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STC’s Miller enjoying double-duty as ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ director-actor

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photographs by Barry Wisdom

 

It’s been a year of firsts for Matt K. Miller, artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company. For one thing, there’s that title, which was bestowed late last year in the wake of longtime STC leader Peggy Shannon’s exit.

A busy stage, film and television actor, voice artist and playwright, Miller began his tenure with STC as a resident company member. In 2005, he stretched his theatrical muscles and took on the role of assistant director for the Shannon-helmed “The Syringa Tree.”

Today he’s not only flying solo in the director’s chair, but he’s adding another first in taking that next step: directing himself.

“Yes, I’ve been busy,” said Miller, whose directorial-acting turn in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” opens March 5 and continues through March 27 on the STC Mainstage. “But it’s a good kind of busy – doing a lot of what I love.”

Miller, 51, said directing was not an early career goal but a direction that “came naturally.”

“I never had any real conscious inclination for it,” he said. “But it feels right, and I’ve had a good time, and the results have been pretty satisfying, I have to say.”

“Memoirs,” which comes on the heels of his well-received “The Owl and the Pussycat,” is his ninth directorial effort for STC, including three productions for the company’s Young Professionals Conservatory.

“For me, there’s only one way to do it,” Miller said of his approach to drawing out great performances. “Get at the heart of the play and bring out the most interesting human truth.”

While acknowledging that great directors don’t have to have acting backgrounds, Miller did say, “In my experience, directors who have been actors – even for a short time – make for the best directors. There’s a vocabulary, a rapport that I think you can only get from being an actor yourself.”

In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the first part of Neil Simon’s autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” – which also includes “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” – Miller’s rapport with his cast extends beyond sharing an acting background.

“Some of these actors I’ve worked with before as fellow actors,” said Miller, who plays Jack Jerome, the overworked patriarch of an extended Brooklyn family circa 1937.

“There’s Jamie Jones, who’s playing (Jack’s wife) Kate. She and I have done a few shows together, including ‘Dirty Blonde,’ ‘Private Lives,’ and ‘Noises Off’ at STC. She’s great – a total pro and has worked all over … New York, San Francisco … she just has that great foundation and ability. 

“She’s fearless as well – something I always admire in an actor,” he said. “She’s fun to direct but even more fun to act with. It’s great I get to do both in this show.”

Julie Anchor, who plays Kate’s widowed sister Blanche, has also shared a stage with Miller.

“She’s just a hoot,” Miller laughed. “She’s got a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. She laughs at my jokes before I finish them. She’s got a great spirit.”

While the rise of fascism in Europe and impending world war adds a layer of seriousness to the play, there are jokes aplenty in Simon’s script, with gag lines well distributed among Miller, Jones, Anchor, Craig Piaget (as the Jeromes’ son Eugene), Eason Donner (as Eugene’s older brother Stanley), Abbey Williams-Campbell/Raelyn Torngren (as Blanche’s older daughter Nora) and Lauren Metzinger/Rachel Finerman (sharing the role of Blanche’s daughter Laurie).

“But there’s poignancy as well,” Miller said. “You can’t go wrong with a Neil Simon play. The construction is like a Swiss watch.”

Coming relatively late to his job of artistic director, Miller had no input on the current season’s lineup, but he said the company’s theme of a “return to the classics” is a concept he endorses.

“Personally I would like to continue that idea,” he said. “It’s my personal aesthetic as well.”

Asked if he had to choose between acting and serving as STC’s artistic director, Miller said he would keep the big chair.

“It’s a nice fit,” he said. “The timing’s been great.”

With a comparatively large cast to direct, construction of an extensive two-story set to oversee and his own part to master, Miller has been on task for weeks, but he said he tries to keep the mood light on set.

“I definitely get the work, but but I do like a fun atmosphere – when it’s appropriate,” Miller said. “People work better when they’re enjoying themselves and are at ease with laughter.

“And if you’re not enjoying it, what the heck are you doing here?”

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KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

WHAT: The Sacramento Theatre Company production of Neil Simon’s "Brighton Beach Memoirs"
WHERE: Sacramento Theatre Company (Mainstage), 1419 H St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: previews March 2-4; opens March 5 (8 p.m.) and continues through March 27 (6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays)
WHO: Written by Neil Simon; directed by Matt K. Miller; set design by Jarrod Bodensteiner; lighting design by Jessica Bertine; sound design by William Myers; costume design by Jessica Minihan; featuring Craig Piaget, Jamie Jones, Eason Donner, Matt K. Miller, Julie Anchor, Abbey Williams-Campbell, Raelyn Torngren, Lauren Metzinger, Rachel Finerman
TICKETS: $38 (discounts for students, seniors and groups); half-price "rush" tickets released 30 minutes prior to each performance (subject to availability)
INFO: (916) 443-6722; www.sactheatre.org
 

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