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Wilder 'was phenomenal. You . . . hung on every word.' : Actor Takes the Lead in Directing Student Cast Through 'Our Town'

November 20, 1987|LYNNE HEFFLEY

Louis J. Dezseran slouched in a chair in a small campus reference library. Tan and lean, with graying hair and a thin face dominated by wide blue eyes, the 45-year-old actor had just finished a daytime performance of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at California State University, Northridge, playing the role of Stage Manager with a student cast.

The students have done a respectable job with the play. Set in a small turn-of-the-century New England town, it transcends time and place to follow the lives and deaths of the town's citizens. It is a work full of warmth and humor--and deep sadness.

The shading and subtlety of Dezseran's performance enhances the production, which ends with a death and the realization of precious moments wasted.

"This is a very emotional play for me," Dezseran said. "I knew Wilder. Even in the early '60s, he was still touring the country and occasionally doing the role of Stage Manager with young groups. He was phenomenal. You kind of sat there and hung on every word."

Dezseran worked with Wilder in the early '60s at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa., playing the role of Milkman.

Message for All Times

"Wilder was a very closed, quiet man about what he felt personally, and I think that's one of the reasons the play is as universal as it can be. It's terrifically powerful . . . there's a message there for all times, without a doubt.

What Wilder is "trying to say to everybody is, 'Don't let a single second go by without appreciating each other.' "

Dezseran performed in "Our Town" at Bucks County Playhouse again in 1970. "The theater company I was with, the Bucks Repertory Company--George Hearn was a member, Frank Converse did shows with us--about half that cast has died from AIDS."

The actor is also caring for his dying father, who has cancer and lives with Dezseran and his family.

"I have no trouble finding tears for the last act," he said.

Dezseran, who has been working with the production at CSUN for five weeks, is part of an arts program that brings professionals on campus. He has just finished the first week of performances, which include evening shows for the public through Nov. 22, with school shows continuing until Dec. 3.

His wife, Catherine, associate professor of theater at CSUN, is directing the play. Their collaboration is nothing new--the two met in the '70s when she was his student at the University of Minnesota. They have worked together professionally all through their marriage--although not as actors.

"I was directing a production of 'Othello,' and I think she's never forgiven me for not casting her as Desdemona," Dezseran said jokingly. They have two children--a daughter Sara, 11, and a son, Louis John Jr., 9.

"I was really hired to work on this show as a mime coach," Dezseran said. "It became evident as we began that the Stage Manager role would be fun to have me do" because the students "would see me develop the character as they were developing their own."

Dezseran, with 28 years of stage and screen credits, has appeared with or taught at professional theaters across the United States, including the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, ACT in San Francisco and Actor's Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky.

He has also worked with Vietnam veterans at Purdue University, in Appalachian communities, with black theaters in the deep South and with the children's theater his wife began there.

Parental Influence

He says his social conscience was fostered by his parents. "My father was the first person to force an integrated situation in a factory in South Carolina . . . my mother was instrumental in integrating the nursing program at the University of South Carolina. I can remember, as a kid, the burning crosses. . . ."

In 1976, he founded the Mixed Blood theater company in Minneapolis, a pioneer multiracial ensemble still in existence.

What does he prefer to be--an educator or performer?

"I don't think there's a way to separate them. I learned a terrific amount from my students in New Orleans and Minnesota . . . and it's so gratifying to see them doing well."

(One former student, Ron Perlman, plays the Beast on CBS' new series "Beauty and the Beast." Another, Joel Brooks, appears on CBS' "My Sister Sam.")

Dezseran says he makes clear the incredible odds against success, however. In the acting unions--"SAG, AFTRA and Equity--our unemployment is something like 86%. You cannot live a normal life and do this.

"And, there are egos involved. You're looking at making it big. A lot of kids have to deal with that, especially in this city. They watch TV and they feel that they can do it just as well. . . . Stanislavsky said, 'Love the art in yourself, instead of yourself in the art.' "

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