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THEATER

Their Son, the Producer

He acts and he directs, but producing theater in L.A. is a new project for the middle son of Eileen Ryan and Leo Penn, who star in 'Remembrance.'

September 21, 1997|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Logically, you know it has to be--but somehow, you just don't think of Sean Penn as having parents. You imagine him suddenly materializing in Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, full-grown and dangerous, just in time to punch out a photographer for trying to shoot a picture of Madonna.

But here it is, the touching family portrait: actress Eileen Ryan, 69, Sean's mother; actor-director Leo Penn, 76, Sean's father; and Sean, 37--all gathered at the Culver City offices of Sean Penn's production company, Clyde Is Hungry, to talk about a new family project: "Remembrance," a drama by Irish playwright Graham Reid, starring Eileen and Leo and executive-produced by Sean and Clyde Is Hungry in association with Helicon Theatre Company. It opens Friday at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Of course, this is not exactly a scene from "The Waltons," with an edgy Sean Penn chain-smoking and bouncing in and out of his chair, railing about the sorry state of theater in Los Angeles, while his wisecracking parents talk about their roller-coaster lives as actors. Their years in the business include Leo Penn's decade on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1940s and '50s, the result of attending meetings of actors sympathetic to Hollywood trade union members and occasionally speaking out at meetings in support of the Hollywood Ten.

Also somewhat outside the norm was the Malibu neighborhood where Sean and his brothers--musician Michael, 39, and actor Chris, 31--grew up shooting their own movies with buddies such as Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen ("God help him!" Leo Penn says of the troubled Sheen, rolling his eyes).

But the dedication to theater--as exemplified by this play, the story of a 68-year-old British Protestant former soldier and a 63-year-old Catholic widow who fall in love in the Belfast cemetery where each has buried a son--is definitely a family affair.

Sean is usually loath to sit still for interviews but is willing to do so in support of this project, his first outing producing theater. "It's rare that you find a love story for people over 40," he says. At the beginning of the interview, however, Sean warns that his cooperativeness tends to be fleeting and that he remains prone to walking out in a huff: "It's still early," he says with a growl, only half-joking.

The elder Penns say they've received nothing but support from their son, who in turn calls his parents "great actors" as well as a "great inspiration" to him and his brothers. "Here is the beginning of something. We're thinking of starting a theater," Sean offers.

Sean is fresh from a best actor nod at Cannes for his role in John Cassavetes' film "She's So Lovely"; he also stars with Michael Douglas in "The Game," and his most recent film, Oliver Stone's "U-Turn," opens in October. Still, he has this to say about the film industry: "There's no acting being done in movies . . . you might as well be talking about a grocer versus an actor in most cases, a personality selling a product, which is just not going to hold up on the stage. . . . You can do that in movies, with images and effects, but you can't do it on the stage."

The play's director, Veronica Brady, brought "Remembrance" to Ryan and Leo Penn, who in turn took it to their son, who agreed to produce it. They discovered the rights to the play were already owned by a trio of actresses--Melissa Fitzgerald, Robin Lange and Laura Jane Salvato. They decided to collaborate, and the three are now in the cast, which also includes James Gandolfini.

Sean Penn describes his role of producer as minimal--"I'm the mayonnaise in the sandwich"--but through his efforts, Sinead O'Connor signed on to compose original music for the play with Joseph Vitarelli, who composed the music for "She's So Lovely." O'Connor performs the recorded music, written in an ancient Irish a cappella style called sean-nos (pronounced shuh-NO).

"It's like getting married again, renewing your vows," says the white-haired, elfin Leo Penn of falling in love with his real-life wife for the first time onstage. "It's misleading to say it's a geriatric 'Romeo and Juliet'--but it is."

Despite Sean's surly reputation, his parents describe him as a "good son" with a strong social conscience, misrepresented by his sometimes violent reaction to the press. "He was married to Madonna, for Christ's sake," Ryan exclaims. "They would just jump out from behind something, he didn't know whether they had a gun in their hand or what--that started the whole thing. . . . I think it hurt Sean a great deal, that time. And Sean is very shy. Of the three boys, Mike and Chris were extroverted, but Sean was shy."

Adds Leo: "In school, they used to call him Gary Cooper, because all he said was 'yup' and 'nope.' "

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