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Arts & Theater
Arts & Theater

Theater A Family Business For The Naughton Clan

You might be tempted to call the arts as the Naughton family business, but to this group of — relatively speaking — well-adjusted actors, directors and musicians, it's just what they do.

There's father James, the two-time Tony Award-winning actor-director who grew up in West Hartford. There's son Greg, an actor-director-singer/songwriter who is also the founder of off-Broadway's Obie Award-winning Blue Light Theater. There's daughter Keira, an actor-singer/songwriter who recently acted in "These Paper Bullets" at Yale Repertory Theatre. (We're staying with blood lines for the moment. Greg's wife is Kelli O'Hara, the five-time Tony Award-nominated actress.)

This summer, the Naughtons have projects at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. Keira is directing her father in the world premiere of the solo show, "Cedars," with performances beginning Wednesday, July 23, and Greg is staging a revival of "A Hatful of Rain" at the theater, with performances beginning Aug. 13.

I talked recently with James and Keira during a break in rehearsals near the theater and with Greg later on the phone from his home in New York about their sometimes inter-connected lives in the arts

"Both my kids grew up in the theater and they saw the best of it," says James Naughton, who starred in Broadway's "City of Angels" and the revival of "Chicago" among a long list of theater, film and stage credits. "They had their formative years at Williamstown [Theatre Festival] every summer which was the best at that time, surrounded by really wonderful people. So they come to [theater life] naturally."

"It's a very seductive place to grow up," says Keira of her Berkshire experiences, "and it was a dream place to be in the summer."

"I guess it was pre-ordained [of being involved in the arts]," says Greg, who is also a singer-songwriter of the folk-rock group The Sweet Remains. "The world in which my father worked was such a happy and appealing one for him — as well as for us. It was seductive right from the beginning. I know other kids of actors and they didn't have that experience but my father was pretty happy [with his life and career], especially around Williamstown, which was like a family summer camp environment."

Most appealing was the sense of extended family atmosphere, especially with welcoming artistic homes in Williamstown, Stockbridge and the Westport Country Playhouse, which was revived in the late '90s by Naughton's close friends Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

"I've been coming to the Berkshires for many years," says Keira, "and it does feel like coming home to family. [Berkshire Theatre Festival artistic director] Kate Maguire is my other mother or older sister: a loyal, maternal, tough, cool lady who I really admire and who's been a bit of a mentor and a real pal.''

When Maguire suggested Keira to direct Naughton in "Cedars," there was no hesitation from either Naughton.

"In the last few years Keira has given me the best notes than anyone," says Naughton. "She's got a real eye [for directing]."

Growing Up With Theater

When not in the Berkshires in the summer, the Naughton family lived in Weston "where we had a pretty normal civilian life," says James. "A lot of my friends are not in the biz." His wife of 46 years, Pamela Parsons and who died last year of pancreatic cancer, was a social worker in the special education department at Weston Middle School. (She was also from West Hartford and was a '64 grad of Hall High School.)

"But we would also go to New York a lot where we saw some weird theater when we were pretty young," says Keira. "Like every Friday we would go into the city and see our father in the [1977] musical 'I Love My Wife.' I had no idea it was about wife swapping."

"It was an opportunity for the kids and me to be together," says James, "so I'd take them, one or the other or both into New York with me and we'd have dinner and they'd go to the show. "The kids were oblivious [to the subject matter of the show]."

Says Keira: "From early on [my brother and I] both wanted to do it, too, because it was such a fun place to be and the people are the best. I still feel I could never leave the theater because I don't really know how to relate to other people. You can say anything in front of actors and no one's judging you. Maybe that's why I started a family of my own late because I had all these other families and never felt isolated and never had that much of a need. That's what's so great about the theater. You really feel this familial bond with the people you work with. The last couple of shows I did — "The Dining Room" at the Westport Playhouse and "These Paper Bullets" — I wanted to move in with the people involved and live in a big commune."

Keira is married to Ben Forgash, a drummer and owner of the bar Dynaco, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. They have a 2-year-old son, Charlie.

Conard Experience

"Keira kept a very low profile as an actress as a child," says James. "Greg [who is three years older] was always doing a lot of acting stuff. Then one day I saw her in a school play, 'The Madwoman of Chaillot,' where she played an old lady.' And I watched her and I thought, 'OK, she's served notice' and there was no stopping her either."

But when it came to college Keira became an English major at Skidmore College. It wasn't until graduate school that she decided to take the plunge into the theater pool. "I remember when I was applying to NYU," says Keira, "my father said, "Is this something I should be supporting?' And I said, 'If I don't try this I'll regret it.' And he said, 'OK,' and that was basically out whole conversation."

For James, whose parents Joseph and Rosemary were teachers, the attraction to theater came first when he went to Conard High School in West Hartford. He says thanks for the cooperative relationship between two men — sports coach Robert McKee and drama coach William Lauer — he was able to play baseball and star in the spring school musicals.

"When I told Bob McKee, who had a reputation for being a pretty tough guy, that I had this opportunity to be in 'South Pacific,' he said, 'Ah, Jim, that's fabulous and you have to do that. But I want to play baseball too.' So together they figured out a way to share me, where I left rehearsal early and then getting to baseball practice late, running back and forth. And you know what? They put up with it again for my senior year, too. Imagine, these two men managing to cooperate with each other for my benefit."

Naughton graduated from Conard in '64, and then went to Brown University in '67 where his focus was baseball and soccer, not getting involved with theater until his junior year. After Brown, he went to the Yale School of Drama, graduating in 1970. (James' younger brother David also turned to acting, starred in the film "An American Werewolf in London" and a long string of TV credits.)

James made his New York debut in 1971 in Arvin Brown's production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Robert Ryan, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Stacy Keach. He was also in Long Wharf' Theatre's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" that starred Mike Nichols and Elaine May, also directed by Brown.

Films included "The Paper Chase," "The First Wives Club," "The Devil Wears Prada," and "The Glass Menagerie" (with Joanne Woodward, directed by Paul Newman). On TV he played in the 1974 "Planet of the Apes" series, Ally McBeal's father in "Ally McBeal."

Naughton also has directing credits, including staging "Our Town" starring Newman first at Westport Country Playhouse, then on Broadway and later for PBS. He's also voiced for audio books and commercials. (He's the baritone voice for Audi, Nexium and Cialis).

Naughton says he's found the hardest part of show business is managing disappointment. "I've said it to young people in theater and I've said it to my kids, too: If you can't manage it, then you have to leave. You get your hearts broken over and over and over again. But [referring to his children] when they grow up and see the best in the business, what choice do they have?"

'Cedars'

All family members have a wide assortment of talents and interests, and sometimes they overlap. Naughton has performed a number of cabaret shows and concerts. Father and son performed in an off-Broadway production of "Golden Boy." The three of them performed in an American Songbook concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And they all performed — including O'Hara — for a staged reading of "The Philadelphia Story" at Westport Playhouse. Naughton appeared in the improvisatory performances with his daughter's performance art band, The Petersons.

"I play this wanton, reckless, over-sexed, Courtney Love, wanna-be, train-wreck of a character and he played my conservative, uptight, military father," she says. "I've always admired dad's vast internal rage. There's a lot of that in this character [in 'Cedars']."

In the play, written by Eric Tarloff, Naughton plays Gabe, a defense lawyer, who, according to the theater's description of the work, "finds himself on the more unfortunate side of life and now, by his comatose father's bedside at Cedars Hospital…A broken marriage, past heartbreak, a dwindling career, family struggles, new relationships, and a slew of mid-life crises take center stage as Gabe tries to find solid ground amid the mess of his world."

As for the next generation of the Naughton family, Keira says her son, Charlie, took an extraordinary interest in playing the drums on the set of 'These Paper Bullets!'" And Greg and Kelli's 5-year-old son Owen also shows a fondness for the theater.

"Kelli and I were just discussing it," says Greg. "It's my dream for my son that he would be a major league baseball player but maybe that was my dream for myself. Unless things change, it looks like's he's going to be some sort of an artist, although I don't know if it's going to be in the theater, though he certainly enjoys spending time around my wife's dressing room in the same way we used to play hide and seek in the theater when it was empty. My feeling is that if he's talented and hard-working and wants to, I don't see anything better he could do."

"CEDARS'' runs at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage 6, East Street in Stockbridge, Mass. to Aug. 9. Previews begin Wednesday, July 23, opens July 26. Performances are Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays. Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $42 to $62. Information: 413-298-5576 and www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

 

An earlier version stated Kelli O'Hara had 5 Tony Awards. She has five Tony nominations. 

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