David Ackroyd stood on the wood floors of the Bohemian Grange Hall in Whitefish with his chin on his chest as if gathering his thoughts. He slowly looked up and began a drunken stumble toward a chair in the middle of the room.
It looked exhausting, as if each step took all the will left in the now-desperate man, who, moments before, was full of energy and laughter.
In that moment, Ackroyd, a staple actor and founder in the Alpine Theatre Project, became John Barrymore, the famous stage and movie actor from the first half of the 20th century.
The inebriated, destitute, yet ever-witty Barrymore is the only character featured on stage for the company’s first show of the season, “Barrymore,” premiering June 17 and running through June 25.
Coming from a rich family tradition of theater, Barrymore is famous for his work in silent film and his pivotal portrayals of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Richard III.” He was also known for booze and divorce, Ackroyd noted.
In “Barrymore,” a play by William Luce, the audience catches up with the actor decades after his career had reached its apex, now broke and battling with his past. The show portrays Barrymore as a man haunted by the ghosts of his past and the death of his dreams, all while attempting to practice for one more rendition of “Richard III.”
“It’s a guy coming to terms with his whole life,” Ackroyd said before rehearsal began last week.
Despite questionable past behavior, though, Barrymore never apologizes for his life, saying at one point, “I’ve had one hell of a life.”
Ackroyd is no stranger to the play, having performed it roughly 15 times earlier in the decade. However, coming back to the character years later has allowed Barrymore to steep in his brain, Ackroyd said, making the performance stronger and more intense.
“When you live with a character for a long time, somehow it ferments,” Ackroyd said.
Montana Repertory Theater’s Artistic Director Greg Johnson is directing “Barrymore,” a fitting arrangement for both him and Ackroyd.
The two men have known each other since working together on a Broadway show in New York in 1980, and their paths have crossed numerous times since. Johnson, who also teaches at the University of Montana, said the two know each other’s craft well enough now that they work in shorthand.
“I go, ‘Ah, well,’ and he goes, ‘I know,’” Johnson said, laughing.
Johnson noted that portraying Barrymore is no easy feat given the man’s notable charisma and extensive emotional baggage. Bringing that character to life, alone on stage, for one hour and 15 minutes doesn’t make it any simpler, he added.
“It’s quite the challenge for any actor,” Johnson said. “You gotta have some chutzpah.”
Not only is Ackroyd up for the challenge, he’s glad for it.
“I’ve been chomping at the bits to do this play and this year it just seemed a perfect fit,” Ackroyd said.
Luke Walrath, executive director for ATP, said the company’s season line-up usually leans toward comedies, and “Barrymore” brings a more serious drama. There are several witticisms in the show, Walrath said, but by and large it is weighty material.
ATP’s new season features a little bit of everything, which was the goal this summer, Walrath said.
“Our biggest concept this season is variety; each show is different from the one before it,” Walrath said. “We always want (our audience) to be surprised, because that lends an air of excitement to what people can expect from us.”
After “Barrymore,” the theater company will feature its biggest production of the summer, “Hair,” from July 9 to July 31. This show will be a bit racier than the other shows, Walrath said, centered on portraying 1960s counter-culture.
“‘Hair’ definitely is going to be kind of our kitchen sink production, we’re throwing everything into that,” Walrath said.
Following “Hair,” veteran television and movie actor John Lithgow will be on stage for one night on July 19 for “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart.”
Then, beginning Aug. 12, ATP will feature Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s classic “A Grand Night for Singing,” which represents a classic return to the tradition of musicals, Walrath said. It will run through Aug. 22.
For ticketing information on “Barrymore” or any of ATP’s summer shows, visit www.alpinetheatreproject.org or call the box office at 862-9050.
UPDATE: This story was corrected to read that “Hair” will begin July 9, instead of July 19 as previously reported. We apologize for the error.
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