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All in the Family : Writer draws on real life in his play about a boy's reunion with his biological father.

August 19, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

BURBANK — It's real life, real fun and real pain when a 10-year-old boy meets his biological fa ther for the first time in Travis Michael Holder's "Surprise, Surprise," which had its world premiere Thursday night at the Victory Theatre.

"His mother and I were in 'Hello, Dolly!' together in London," explains Holder, 47, who is purposefully vague about where his real life and the play's story merge. "I was 18; she was in her mid-30s and had a husband and two kids in L.A." When the woman found out she was pregnant, she left the show and high-tailed it back home without telling Holder of her condition. It wasn't until a decade later that he found out, when the young boy's maternal grandmother spilled the secret and put the father and son in touch.

"It made me grow up real fast," Holder says succinctly of his instant fatherhood 19 years ago. At that point, the boy's mother had been hospitalized six years since a major car accident (and would remain hospitalized until her 1994 death), and the boy had a rocky relationship with the man he'd grown up believing was his father.

The play's characters include the boy David, David's grandmother Winnie, his "new" father Den, Den's partner Colin, and Den's friend Junie Hannah, a glamorous former film star. Dawn Wells plays Junie.

"I've known Travis as an actor and a friend," Wells explains. "Three or four years ago I read the play, and was really knocked out by its humanity. I think it has a lot to say." So does Wells, who may forever wipe out her image of the squeaky-clean Mary Ann of "Gilligan's Island" with her portrayal of Junie, a jaded, tough-talking actress who's been through the Hollywood wringer. "The harder her mouth is, the tougher it is to get through, to see the colors of her character," says the actress. "She protects herself from the outside."

The fact that one of Wells' co-stars is in a wheelchair is ironic, since her company, Wishing Wells, has a line of clothing, Quick Change, for hospitalized or disabled persons. It grew from her idea that "there had to be a way of making beautiful clothes and fabrics that are easy to get out of."

With a resurgence of "Gilligan" mania, Wells also has a board game in the works based on the '60s series, and last winter launched "Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook."

Scott Cheek, the 18-year-old disabled actor who's playing Colin, also has an off-stage relationship with the writer: Holder is his manager, and was by his hospital bedside for 13 weeks last year when a movie-set accident sent him through a plate-glass window, resulting in permanent spinal injury.

Holder had originally written the part for a 30-year-old man, but altered it so Cheek could do the role. "I realized what was missing from the play was what Scott could bring," he says. "So I rewrote it with his will and his spirit.

"Seeing his courage really changed my life," says Holder, who also manages nine other young actors and is a reviewer for Entertainment Today. "At the time of Scott's accident, I was feeling sorry for myself: watching all my friends be much more successful, having four cancer surgeries in my 20s and 30s--so I was at a real emotional ebb." Originally, he had envisioned the role of Den for himself as an acting showcase, but found "it was more important than about people seeing me act."

Holder, who debuted on Broadway at age 6, came west at 19, under contract at Paramount. His varied show-biz experiences include appearing in "Hair," booking acts at the Troubador, and doing three years of publicity for The Doors. In this play, he admits, "Hollywood gets skewered; there's a lot of jokes about it and the people in it. But I think it's real life-affirming."

Show producer Phil Wurtzel-- once Holder's acting student at Cal State San Bernardino--agrees: "It's not trying to carry a torch for anything. It's just a day in the life."


What: "Surprise, Surprise."

Location: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes Oct. 16.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 841-5421.

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