Those familiar with PURE Theatre might have been surprised to see David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross included in the current season's lineup. While the play is one of Mamet's most celebrated, displaying the playwright's signature excavation of the modern male psyche (with generous doses of both black humor and profanity), it's also over 20 years old and already known to many via the star-studded 1992 film adaptation. There's no arguing the quality of the source material, but PURE, known for their focus on contemporary and lesser-known plays, has surprised many by staging it.
For director Erin Wilson, however, it wouldn't have made sense not to take a shot at the project. "If PURE had been around when this play came out, we would have produced it then," she says. "So, you know, why not do it now?"
Wilson, who moved to Charleston only a few years ago but has quickly established herself as both an actor and director to watch, wasn't about to take a pass on a project with potential just because of its original publication date. "It's just such great roles for our guys," she says. The cast, comprised exclusively of PURE core ensemble members, includes her husband — and PURE artistic director — Laurens Wilson. (Non-core ensemble actor Patrick Arnheim will also take over for Michael Smallwood during the final week of the run.)
In addition to directing the play, Wilson suggested doing Glengarry Glen Ross at PURE. "I directed two shows last season, The Testament of Mary and Other Desert Cities, and they went pretty well. Glengarry was a little bit of an odd choice for us, so [PURE Artistic Director] Sharon [Graci] and I talked about it, and she read it. It just got more and more exciting," Wilson says. "We wanted to do it because it's a perfect play for our male core ensemble. We've got eight guys in our male core ensemble and seven of them are in the show. It seemed dumb not to do it ... It's a seminal, 'Give it to your men and let them kick ass in it' sort of play."
Having worked with the entire cast as an actor, this will be the first show in which Wilson has directed any of them. "We all know each other," she says, "but I've never directed any of these guys before. So everybody's sort of on their toes in a different way. We've all been in shows together. Randy directed me in a show; Rodney directed me in a show." She admits assuming the role of director with a cast she's so familiar with comes with a unique kind of pressure. "It's seven guys that I really like, and I respect their work. I want them to think I'm doing a good job."
One of the actors that Wilson is especially excited to work with is R.W. Smith. "Smitty was in the first show I did here," she says. "And the second show and the third show and the fourth show. And he gets to play a real D-bag in [Glengarry]. It's been really fun to work with him to find that inner ass that everybody has."
She adds that the whole cast is rising to the challenge of handling Mamet's notoriously gnarled dialogue. Wilson says, "It's such a great amount of fun and raunchiness and a great amount of really good work that comes out in a sort of egoless, comfortable, casual atmosphere."
Thematically, the play tackles timeless subjects like loyalty, selfishness, and the limits of decency, in addition to the potentially soul-crushing aspects of working in commerce. While the cast is entirely male — the word "testosterone" commonly appears in descriptions of Glengarry Glen Ross — Wilson thinks the play is based in something universal. "I mean, greed and humans? I don't see that ever not being a hot topic for us," she says. "I really just can't imagine that we're going to evolve in such a way that it's just not an issue."
Many audience members will doubtlessly know the film adaptation, which starred Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, and Alan Arkin, but Wilson is confident that the PURE production will offer something new no matter how well people know the movie. "Our Shelly Levine [Randy Neale] is so different than Jack Lemmon's. The pathos is there, the bravado is there, the heartbreak is there. But it's just a different pathos, different heartbreak, different bravado. I'm most interested in people caring about these characters," Wilson says. "Put the movie aside, put your preconceived notions aside, and just live with these guys, kind of see that, even though on the surface they're all kind of crappy humans, there are reasons why. I feel like the actors have found so much more to these people. They're D-bags, but they're not just D-bags."