INTERVIEW: Cast of “The Perfect Wife” Talks Tricky Family Dynamics On Stage And Why Theatre Needs More Women

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Ivy Theatre Company’s The Perfect Wife ends its run this weekend. Before the cast took their final bows, they opened up about bringing The Perfect Wife and its complex characters to life on stage as well as why theatre benefits from a more diverse variety of creative talents.

Tell me about your character and what you most identify with personally.

Gwenevere Sisco (Kathy): “I play Kathy, a woman who has lived through a lot of tragedy and is currently fighting to maintain control of the sinking ship that is her family.  I suppose I most identify with the feeling of responsibility for fulfilling all the roles expected of a woman and caregiver.  Kathy is faced with caring for someone with dementia, and while I’ve never been in the exact same position (thank god), I do understand feeling like another person’s wellness depends on your ability to put on a 24/7 show of strength;  and on a grander scale, I understand the pressure I think most women feel to be whatever woman-lover-daughter-etc the world expects us to be.”

Chase Hemphill (Matt): “I play Matt Jenkins, the boyfriend of Kathy’s older sister, Sarah. I exist on the periphery of the play in terms of its central conflicts, and I’d say that my struggles are way less intense than what Kathy and Sarah are dealing with. I’m more or less searching for answers as to what forces have shaped Sarah and her outlook on family and relationships, and I’m looking for those answers in my conversations with her father and sister… the audience never sees Sarah and me on stage together. Fortunately, I haven’t had immediate family members or relatives who’ve suffered from any sort of neurological dementia, so I identify with my character in the very fundamental way of having experienced difficult times in a relationship where, hopefully, communication, understanding, and a sense of humor, are enough to keep things healthy.”

John Lenartz (Paul): “I think Paul is a good man wracked with guilt about having had to abandon his family.  He felt he sinned, didn’t fight the wishes and demands of his wife to stay away from her and the kids, and was tortured by the result.  However, I believe his trying to cajole and beg his daughter for sexual intimacy are a reflection of the same arguments he had with his wife years earlier.  I think she, through hormonal changes or by assuming the role of mother, lost interest in sex and this was a hard thing for Paul to accept.  So he strayed.  And now, in his demented state, he is trying to relive or recreate the idea of the perfect wife/perfect life that he didn’t enjoy in his earlier years.  I have friends who saw the show who thought that perhaps he had inappropriate sexual contact with the children — especially Sarah thus explaining her deep bitterness — but I never approached it that way.  I believe he was a good father who’s greatest flaw was a temper that was easily set off.  I think what I most identify with Paul is the frustration and disappointment of the disparity of who you want to be as a person and who you actually are or perceived to be.”

Paul has this very complicated relationship with his daughter Sarah and ex-wife Natalie, but his relationship with Kathy is really at the center of the play. John, can you talk about your time working with Gwenevere to bring that relationship to life on stage?

John Lenartz (Paul): “Well it helps that Gwenevere is a great woman and easy to work with.  It was an early rehearsal, before we even worked much on the play, that Audrey suggested we address the kiss and get it out of the way.  I think we approached things professionally and just attacked the script and its demands as we would any other play.  Gwen is playful and quick to laugh, so we handled the awkwardness of the themes of the play with humor and ultimately trust in one another.”

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In the show, Kathy goes to some really dark places and deals with situations that no one wants to face. Kathy, how did you manage your mental and emotional well-being while rehearsing and performing the show, and what do you hope audiences take away from the show and the character of Kathy specifically?

Gwenevere Sisco (Kathy): “There were certainly a few days in the rehearsal process that were rough, emotionally, and required some chocolate and a glass a cocktail at the end of the night…. But a huge part of my job is to navigate a really treacherous path (without over-indulging in chocolate and drinks).  Unfortunately, I am not an actor who can believably fake the pain, so in rehearsal, I have to sort of trudge into the swamps of sadness, and figure out the muscle memory of going there and create some rituals around it, so that I can just not think about it all day, then get to the space, go through my ritual, ride the story back through the swamp, and then it’s over. When the story provides my character with a happy ending, or at least a release, then I can exhale through my final exit and go back to life. When it doesn’t, things get trickier…

“I love Ivy Theatre plays because they don’t tell you what to think, but provoke you to wonder.  So I don’t have a particular idea I want audiences to take away, but I hope audiences leave the show with questions for themselves about how far they might go in similar circumstances – how far is too far? Questions about the roles they play to please those around them, questions about the way they value their family and the way they perceive memory. Questions about the line between compassion and martyrdom.”

The dynamic of this show is very female dominated, which is kind of unusual in any performance art (theater, film, TV). John and Chase, as the only two men in the cast, how has the experience on The Perfect Wife been different from other shows you have worked on?

John Lenartz (Paul): “It hasn’t really been much different. Ivy [Theatre Company], which consists of the three founders Audrey, Gwen, and Katie are three strong, motivated, self-assured women who run a professional and respectful theater. Individually they are great, together they are the theater equivalent of Charlie’s Angels. At least that’s what I’ve said to them as I teased them about their strengths and personalities.”

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Chase Hemphill (Matt): “Truthfully, the small amount of theater that I’ve done has been very female centric, which I’m a big fan of by the way! I was fortunate to do As You Like It as an undergrad and was absolutely privileged to play Tom in a production of Fat Pig in Los Angeles, both of which have strong female leads. And both productions were heavily influenced with female producers and crew. So in that regard, The Perfect Wife fits with what I know… it was an amazing creative experience. Aside from a short film I shot this past December, film has been a different story, and without getting too specific, I would offer that there has been less parity and more ego.”

Why do you think it is important for New York theater to have more women as directors, playwrights, and leading characters?

John Lenartz (Paul): “Women offer a perspective and sensibility that often highlights the best we can hope for in theater — enlightenment, understanding, captivating storytelling, sensitivity, and inclusiveness.  Women have an important voice that for too long had been ignored or marginalized. I’ve had the privilege of working with and originating roles for two great playwrights — Beth Henley in L Play and Sarah Ruhl in Eurydice. I would say Karen Lewis has written and equally important and compelling play. They all offer the same common denominator — a sensitivity and understanding into the human condition.”

Chase Hemphill (Matt): “It’s important because it’s right. Theater, film, TV, music… these are mediums that can elevate and inspire us as communities, and last I checked, half of us are female. Not to sound trite, but that sort of chauvinistic, patriarchal thinking is so outdated it just mystifies me that it’s maintained any sort of influence.”

Gwenevere Sisco (Kathy): “I have a hundred good answers to this question, but here’s one: For thousands of years, one of the primary purposes of theatre has been to hold a mirror up to society. What the f— kind of mirror fails to reflect half of reality? Straight, white, able-bodied men are lovely and all, but their mirror gets dull after a while, and we have evolved – I want to see some more integration of stories, for the love of God.  Let’s tell some stories about women and queers and people of color and let’s give those people the reigns!”

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…and now, back to the interview!

The Perfect Wife is the kind of play where it is best for the audience to know as little about the plot as possible. What would you say to people who are thinking about buying tickets without giving away too much?

Chase Hemphill (Matt): “I’d say that it’s a very compelling, very intense look at how dealing with a loved one who is suffering from dementia can be utterly brutal and devastating. But I’d be quick to add that it’s quite humorous and buoyant enough that it doesn’t completely wear you out or beat you over the head.”

John Lenartz (Paul): “I had a friend who came last night saying he wished he knew the subject matter before coming.  The play’s themes and darkness took him by surprise.  He counsels young people and found himself getting angry with the choices of both the characters Sarah and Kathy.  I try to alter people’s expectations warning it’s not a light-hearted romp as the title may suggest, but rather the story of a family and particularly one woman’s challenge of caring for a father with early-onset dementia.”

Gwenevere Sisco (Kathy): “Come get disturbed with us!!  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe and then cringe some more.”

What other projects do you have coming up, or where else can people see you?

John Lenartz (Paul): “I don’t have any specific projects upcoming, but I would like to call attention to two other theater companies I work with — Phoenix Theatre Ensemble which emerged from the defunct Jean Cocteau Repertory in 2005 and have done some stellar, often too unrecognized work, and ReGroup Theater which is headed by Allie Mulholland, dedicated to focusing on the work and the type of work once produced by the Group Theater.”

Gwenevere Sisco (Kathy): “I’ll be in a very racy show in the Brick’s F*k Fest next month called, A Sex Thing (or a bunch of liberals getting uptight about the socio-political implications of their desires. It’ll be interesting.”

Chase Hemphill (Matt): “You can check me out and get information on upcoming projects on my website, on Twitter, and on IMDB.”

Ivy Theatre Company’s The Perfect Wife is playing at the 4th Street Theatre, located at 83 East 4th Street, through May 16. Tickets are $18 and available at the door or online here.

Directions to the 4th Street Theatre:

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