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Call Him a 'Quick-Change' Artist

During the day Orson Bean is an actor on 'Dr. Quinn,' but at night he attends to his true love--theater.

June 01, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Orson Bean is laughing with an actor, his back to the stage--unaware that the rest of the cast is standing in place, waiting to rehearse. Since Bean is the director, everyone is on standby until he's ready.

"You have to wait for Orson's jokes," his wife, actress Alley Mills, dryly observes. The company laughs in agreement.

Bean is at the Pacific Resident Theatre for a Saturday brush-up rehearsal with some of the principal actors and understudies in "The Quick-Change Room (Scenes From a Revolution)." Since opening at the Venice theater in early April, this comedy about life and art in post-Perestroika Russia has amassed rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences.

Though Bean plays around a lot, he's entirely earnest about the work, walking to the lip of the stage at one point to calmly but firmly instruct an understudy: "You've just got to remember not to make it too cartoonish."

The actor begins again, and Bean laughs approvingly.

Nearly 69, Bean's face is etched with laugh lines, and the way he grins, he'll have a lot more in years to come. His conversation is part old-time comedy routine, part spiritual discourse--funny voices and politically incorrect patter one moment, thoughtful introspection the next.

"I think Orson is a very, very special human being," says Marilyn Fox, the theater's artistic director and a leading performer in "The Quick-Change Room." "He is a sage, very spiritual, very deep, very enlightened type of man who is also like a little boy."

Bean and Mills live just a mile from the theater--a good thing, given how much time they spend there. They are members of the acting company, and Mills sits on the board of trustees. Bean has performed with the company since 1992, appearing in such acclaimed productions as 1994's "Awake and Sing!" (presented at the nearby Odyssey Theatre), last year's "Golden Boy" and, with Mills, in last year's "The Playboy of the Western World." They're regulars behind the scenes, as well, raising money and doing the grunt work required in small theater companies.

The 12-year-old Pacific Resident Theatre--also called Pacific Theatre Ensemble and Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble through the years--is best known for staging little-produced classic plays, although it also presents contemporary works such as "The Quick-Change Room."

Flashback to earlier in the day. Bean and Mills are chatting over lunch at their home on the Venice canals, and Bean is trying to explain what lurks behind that grin of his. "I just feel lucky; I just feel happy to be alive. I feel blessed to have Alley in my life, and I feel blessed to live on the canals. And above all, I feel blessed to be part of that theater company, and to have this great day job."

The "day job" is his role as Loren Bray, the storekeeper on CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Mills, best remembered as the mom on ABC's "The Wonder Years," has been appearing on "Dr. Quinn" lately as series star Jane Seymour's snooty sister and, realistically enough, has been carrying on a romance with Bean's storekeeper.

"I love being on my TV show. But I honestly look at it as the day job that enables me to do this [work in the theater], which is where my heart is," says Bean, who in recent years has been a mainstay of Los Angeles' small theaters, performing on stages as obscure as the now-closed Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills and as prominent as the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

"I don't think that the theater should necessarily pay," he adds. "Make a living doing commercials or soap operas or tending bar--and then do theater. . . . People shouldn't get into show business because they want to become stars or become rich; they should get into it because they can't help but put on a show."

Pacific Resident Theatre's tightly budgeted existence is many dollars removed from the lavishly financed world of television. Yet Bean takes a certain delight in the frugality. "To me, when you make do, there's something wonderful about it. . . . That's why I love Equity waiver--I don't think of it as the poor stepchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I think we're better. By and large, it's the purest form of theater."

His joie de vivre seems over the top at times. (How many people go around saying things like "Being happy is a revolutionary act; I think it spreads, like ripples in a pond"?)

But his wife of four years attests: "What he says about happiness is really true for him. He loves the theater like a kid." As a principal performer in "The Quick-Change Room," she appreciated how that manifested itself at rehearsal. "He sat there with so much appreciation--giggling and loving it."

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