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Paying Homage : Beverly Hills Theater Troupe to Stage Premiere of Mark Medoff's Drama

March 10, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not every day that a small--albeit well-respected--local theater gets to stage the world premiere of a major playwright. But that's what's happening at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, where Mark Medoff's drama "The Homage That Follows" opens Friday.

The connection is Theatre 40's acting artistic director, William Frankfather. Frankfather has known Medoff since 1966, when they were at New Mexico State University--Frankfather as a graduate student, Medoff as a first-year teacher and aspiring novelist. Since then, Frankfather has appeared in several Medoff pieces, including the Mark Taper Forum's 1979 staging of his Tony Award-winning drama, "Children of a Lesser God." Medoff also wrote "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?"

In the five-character "Homage," Frankfather plays the supporting role of a defense attorney. "It has the dark Medoff character that keeps popping into all his plays," he said. "It's also a tough read--as a lot of his plays are. There was only one director I could trust it with: Flora Plumb. And it even took her a few readings to get into it; the piece really only comes alive when you put it on its feet."

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"Homage" takes place in New Mexico (Medoff's home turf) and centers on the emotional triangle of a middle-aged teacher, her actress daughter who's come home to visit and the young man who'd been hired to tend the mother's property--and ends up murdering the daughter. "The play happens in a cracked time frame," explained Medoff, 54. "It begins with the young man in jail and then we relive the past."

The Florida-born playwright cites two impulses for his story line.

"I taught at New Mexico State University for 27 years," he said, "and in the '80s I became acutely aware of burnout. I didn't seem to have the same spirit I had when I was younger. I wanted to write about that. Then the brother of one of my students was brutally murdered. So this play was trying to deal with that experience of death and loss."

Married for 23 years and a father of three daughters (the eldest will make him a grandfather in June), Medoff said he liked the idea of treading on female turf. "I'd learned with 'Children' that I was able to write fairly decent female characters," said the playwright, who graduated from the University of Miami and Stanford University. "And living with so many women, I've become fairly feminized. I wanted to write a play with females at the center."

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Medoff also works in film: His screenplays include "Clara's Heart," with Whoopi Goldberg, and "City of Joy," with Patrick Swayze.

"I've done seven movies and written three times that many that didn't get made," he said dryly. "When I first started writing movies, I thought of it as a form of prostitution. I just wanted to make as much money as possible."

Medoff, who headed the theater arts department at New Mexico State from 1978 to 1989, is the school's dramatist-in-residence and a professor emeritus. Although formally retired from teaching, he's loath to give it up completely.

"The fact is, I love working with kids--but I hate traveling," he said. "The rule in our house is that if I'm gone longer than 10 days, everyone comes along. So it can get inconvenient. But I really like going out three or four times a year, doing a five-day workshop with public school kids."

In the years since the mega-success of "Children," Medoff has had time to come to grips with fame--and the accompanying expectations.

"First 'Red Ryder,' then 'Children,' were benedictions and curses," he said. "When 'Red Ryder' struck in '73, I was in my 30s--and I felt very strongly that I had to replicate this experience. Then 'Children' came along. You'd think a person would say, 'I've got to do this every time,' but that didn't happen to me. Of course, you want the public and critics to come to everything; you want everything to have success. But I realized I couldn't measure what I did by financial success or public recognition. I can only do the best I can do--every time."

A special performance of the play is scheduled today to benefit Homestead Hospice & Shelter, a local program providing care to people with AIDS. Information: Alfred Herrera at (213) 466-5411.

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