It’s easy to get fired up about seeing Joseph Miloni back on stage, especially when an interview ignites passion couched in his acerbic wit. The occasion? A few days before the opening of The Heiress, a classic adapted from a Henry James novella, and presented by the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre.
They’re doing it in a stately hall at First Congregational Church and that’s where this conversation pairs Joe (“You can call me Joe but I’m Joseph on stage.”) and director Cathy Kurz. Miloni most recently directed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Patients at Bellevue Little Theatre, so he jabbed, “You didn’t come to see it, you rat!”
I confessed my ignorance of that G&S creation, so Joe suggested, “To know The Patients, you have to be really erudite.” Miloni has sung in 10 of their 14 shows, but today’s topic was how come the man, known to many as a former Omaha Community Playhouse costume designer, is back in action.
Cathy Kurz might have called him sooner, but “I didn’t even know he was in town.” Joe went, “Phfft, where would I go?”
They almost crossed paths years ago when Cathy starred in The Manchurian Candidate at the Playhouse. “I costumed it,” he recalled. And they almost worked together last spring when she cast Miloni and John Durbin (as John Jackson, Alexander Payne’s casting director, he’s among the sources in Payne’s current New Yorker spread) in The Dresser. Two weeks before rehearsals, the play’s rights in North America were withdrawn.
So Kurz called again when she settled on The Heiress as Brigit’s season opener and needed his talents to play Dr. Sloper, the father of shy Catherine, whose mother died at her birth. “I wanted to play it when the Playhouse did it, but she (Susie Baer Collins) had Bernie Clark.” Alexandra Hunt, the native Omahan opera star, returned to play Aunt Lavinia, Sloper’s sister, a role played now by Mary Beth Adams, whose rich credits match Miloni’s.
With Katlynn Yost in the complex role of Catherine, all three tackle roles known as “star magnets.” For Yost, who works with RESPECT, the troupe that performs anti-bullying and other educational skits, its the heaviest role with the "most deeply-layered" character she has tackled. Most recently, Jessica Chastain played Catherine with David Straitharn as Dr. Sloper and Judith Ivey as the bumbling Aunt Lavinia. “That’s a great part,” Miloni says. “I wish it lasted the whole damn play.”
He also wishes he’d seen the original Sloper, Basil Rathbone, but the London star, Ralph Richardson, got the movie role opposite Olivia de Haviland. A later film starred Albert Finney and Jennifer Jason Leigh with Maggie Smith as Lavinia.
When he read the 1947 script by Ruth and Augustus Getz, drawing on James’ “Washington Square,” “My interpretation--evil father, dumb daughter, jerk boy friend--was totally different than the director.” Enter Cathy Kurz.
“She’s a brilliant director,” informing him from her literary depth and prompting his “I didn’t think of that.” For example? “Every damn line. It’s really amazing.”
In other words, the habitually acerbic Joe, the one who looks at Cathy’s faux snakeskin jacket and asks, “Is that made from the skin of your actors?”, almost gushes. Same goes when he talks about others in the cast such as Yost, Adams and Will Muller as Morris Townsend, the boyfriend seen by Dr. Sloper as a fortune-hunter drawn by Catherine’s inheritance.
Muller, who played Jamie in Brigit’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, has the role that went to Montgomery Clift in the movie. Fans of public television’s Downton Abbey may resent the character when they hear that the car-crash death of that story’s hero was required so Dan Stevens could play Morris on Broadway.
As Kurz introduced the more nuanced version of the roles to Miloni, he realized Dr. Sloper wasn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. Still, when the Playhouse performed it, a hushed audience heard one playgoer audibly whisper, “He’s a mean one.”
Kurz contrasts the earlier performances with a more modern understanding. “Then there was a great appetite for melodrama, good guys and bad guys.” She sees the reasons for Dr. Sloper’s relationship with his “afraid of her own shadow” daughter.
“Children and fathers weren’t that close” in those days of genteel New York society, circa 1850s. “She’s so shy and self-conscious, idolizing her father. He is so polite and formal, but he can’t forget that her birth caused her mother’s death.
He’s a well-educated doctor at a time when anyone in science was elevated. “He’s very wealthy…charming, cultured, gregarious.” He doesn’t understand this shy daughter who’s not the light of the house that her mother was.
“He doesn’t try to make her feel bad, but she can feel his disappointment.” The big challenge for Katlynn Yost is to be convincing when Catherine transforms as she understands what her father and her boyfriend want from her. “She does a good job of it,” Kurz says.
Conversation about these roles quickly jumps to others as Miloni and Kurz draw on encyclopedic recall of great performances. More often than not, Joe has Cathy guffawing at both acid and admiring observations.
His favorite role? The inspector in Gaslight at the Norton Theatre. This sparks comments about the movie with Joseph Cotton as the inspector joined by Charles Laughton and Ingrid Bergman. That reminds Cathy, “I first saw you as Sherlock Holmes” in The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which reminds Joe of the “stupid” award he got for that role when he should have been recognized for Gaslight.
He has a few more resentments, like “People who say you always play the same thing. That’s because I play them better than anyone else. I’m not going to play Romeo, but I’ll play Mercutio and they’ll forget Romeo.”
With that, “I’m going to take a drag and be right back.” Later, he winces with regret at “that awful vice.”
Soon he’s riffing on a film with Claude Rains and Bette Davis, another with Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson and Edward Arnold, and mimics Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Cathy talks about Dinner at Eight and more names pop up: Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler and the great John Barrymore.
Joe’s dad, who owned liquor stores, met Barrymore once in Omaha. And that reminds Miloni of Henry Fonda’s last visit to the Playhouse, arriving old and frail and asking for a bottle of Jack Daniels. “Then he walked on stage as a handsome actor and lost 50 years.”
During nearly two hours of conversation, the always delightful Joseph Miloni made any number of remarks that I was warned to omit or he’d either have to kill me or return from his grave to get me. I’m hoping none of them popped up, but who knows. Talking to Joe is always worth the risk, and seeing him perform on stage is always a theatrical treat.
The Heiress runs Oct. 31-Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays presented by the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre at First Congregational Church Memorial Hall, 36th and Harney (parking on Southwest corner). Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors, military, students. Call 402.502.4910 for reservations. See online blog for review.