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Fonda's Rapturous Return to Theater : Stage: After a 20-year-plus hiatus, Peter Fonda puts himself on the line to direct 'Southern Rapture,' with a star, Dwight Yoakam, better known for his sorrowful songs.

April 01, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a shimmering spring day, Peter Fonda is jumping between phone calls and an interview in his West Hollywood hotel suite and barely pausing for breath. He seems to enjoy the rush, just as he seems blissfully unaware that he is a bundle of contradictions.

He enthuses about the simple life on the spread outside of Livingston, Mont., that he shares with his wife, Becky (whom he proudly identifies as "the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett"), and his Labrador retrievers. But here he is, in this swanky Sunset Boulevard suite, surrounded by laptops, cellular phones, pocket computers and mini-CD players.

He talks warmly about his famous family, how he feels protective of them. But then he launches into an unprintable anecdote about facing off with a director on a movie set, and his voice could just as well be out of "Easy Rider," Fonda's immortal film rebellion against Hollywood.

Fonda is so in love with moviemaking that he casually drops terms such as anamorphic and techniscope into conversation, and even keeps a list of camera filters in his pocket computer. But this time he's not in town for a movie: He's directing a new play by Joseph G. Tidwell III, "Southern Rapture," opening Friday at the Met Theatre.

As an actor, Fonda freely admits that he has questioned authority and resisted the rules. "To this day," he says, "I don't have a head shot. Every actor should have a head shot. I mean, I have pictures of me with Becky, or with Larry Hagman riding Harleys together. Maybe it's being dictated to. . . ."

At the same time, Fonda apparently can also dictate to others. He notes some of the early production-related problems of "Southern Rapture" ("the usual--a breakdown in communications") and says that "if I have to be captain of the whole thing, by God, those lights cues will be memorized and the stage action will be letter-perfect! When I leave the rehearsal room, I announce, 'The captain's off the bridge!' and when I return, I announce, 'The captain's on the bridge!' "

But in a way, Fonda warns his guest, he's almost always kidding. He recalls how an elaborate joke he once told an interviewer about making "a family pornographic movie" with his sister Jane ended up in Peter Collier's biography, "The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty."

"The old line," Fonda says, "used to be 'screw them if they can't take a joke,' but in reality, it's 'I'm screwed if they can't take a joke.' "

He wasn't sure, though, how to take country star Dwight Yoakam's offer in November, when Yoakam came up to the actor during a muscular dystrophy fund-raiser organized by Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts. Yoakam asked Fonda to direct Tidwell's play, for which he had purchased the producer's rights.

"I told Dwight I hadn't directed for theater in over 20 years. Dwight said, 'Well, time to get back to it.' So I read the play, and it made me rethink Dwight Yoakam. This isn't the kind of project we could turn into a musical and make a ton of money on. This play is laced with Greek tragedy, with Shakespeare."

Tidwell's Southern Gothic tale depicts a bizarre psychological implosion involving a disturbed young man, Tommy Jo, imprisoned in a cell on a plantation run by the autocratic Miss Rogers and befriended by a custodian and a young woman.

"I was seeing some 'Oedipus' over here, a little Aeschylus over there," Fonda notes, "and I asked Joe if he knew how many Greek tragedies were running through this play, and he really didn't know. Which is more amazing, because then I realized that Joe's gift is that he's a conduit for these great traditions."

For the play's two-month run, Fonda has assembled two casts, one for each month, with a few cast members holding over for the full run. The big surprise in the ensemble isn't Sally Kirkland (as Miss Rogers), making her return to the smaller theater scene, or Badja Djola from "Mississippi Burning," but Yoakam himself, playing Tommy Jo.

Fonda brushes aside any suggestions of Yoakam showcasing, especially since the singer's new album, "This Time," just hit the streets. "All Dwight wanted to do was produce," Fonda explains. "Just listening to Dwight, it occurred to me that he would be right for the part. Sally and Joe and I talked about it. It didn't matter that he had only done a little acting. It was clear after the first reading. He's extraordinarily bright and sensitive. He gobbles up reference books, but he doesn't just soak up information; he uses it in his life."

Yoakam, who is gigging and promoting the new album when he isn't rehearsing, says Fonda has "given me a basis from which I can build something as an actor. Nothing is literal in Peter's staging. He's emphasizing to us how Joe's play is an allegory, and it's taken me to a whole new level."

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