The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mich., currently has a touch of the Gem City in its midst, thanks to Dayton resident Richard McWilliams.
McWilliams portrays Ludwig van Beethoven in its production of "33 Variations," a compelling play-with-music by Moisés Kaufman ("The Laramie Project").
A 2009 Tony Award nominee for Best Play, "33 Variations" centers on Dr. Katherine Brandt, an acclaimed musicologist battling Lou Gehrig's disease who vows to unlock the mystery surrounding Beethoven's obsession with a simple waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli. The overlapping action shifts between 19th century Austria and the present as Beethoven vigorously challenges himself to create his variations and Katherine uses her meticulous research as an opportunity to reconnect with her daughter before it's too late.
"This play has a lot to do with Beethoven, but for me, the main story is the relationship with Katherine and her daughter dealing with a terminal disease," said McWilliams. "Disease is unfortunately a part of life, and situations may look dire sometimes. But the play travels in a great direction concerning the healing process of relationships within this fractured family. I find it very moving, and hopefully the audience has felt the same."
McWilliams, a Texas native, readily admits he isn't musically inclined but enjoyed grasping a better understanding of the misunderstood genius through research. He says finding the proper approach to inhabit such a larger-than-life individual was challenging but eye-opening all the same.
"Beethoven was a very complex man," he said. "When I was offered this role I certainly knew about his music but I didn't know much about him as a man. So I read a lot of biographies and discovered he had a very tough time maintaining relationships with various people in his life, particularly his nephew, mainly because of his art and his commitment to it. Knowing this information gave me a path to take in my portrayal. The pure scope of Beethoven is larger-than-life but in some ways he really isn't. The back and forth of his nature has been a challenge to portray but it has been fun nonetheless to carve out a real human being."
"33 Variations," which also features Daniel C. Britt of Hamilton, marks McWilliams' first production with Purple Rose Theatre, founded in 1991 by Chelsea native and Golden Globe and Tony nominee Jeff Daniels ("The Squid and the Whale," "The Newsroom," "God of Carnage"). His numerous credits include the Broadway production of "Orpheus Descending," off-Broadway productions of "The Night Hank Williams Died" and "Macbeth," and regional productions of "The Price," "Julius Caesar," "Lobby Hero," "Broadway Bound," "Underneath the Lintel," "The Retreat from Moscow" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
After "33 Variations" closes June 1, he looks forward to returning to Dayton, where he has lived for the past 11 years with his wife Teressa, associate professor of dance at Wright State University who will choreograph "Oklahoma!" this fall, and daughter Lindsay, a 2009 graduate of Oakwood High School and 2013 costume design graduate of University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Lindsay interned last summer with Tony-winning costumer Gregg Barnes ("The Drowsy Chaperone," "Follies"), currently represented on Broadway with the hit musical "Kinky Boots."
At present, he is grateful to join the esteemed Purple Rose Theatre, a company dedicated to developing, producing and promoting new American plays.
"It's a blessing," said McWilliams. "I'm working with a really good group of people and having a great time. It's been a great experience."
For show information about "33 Variations," which continues through June 1, call the Purple Rose Theatre Company Box Office at (734) 433-7673 or go online to www.purplerosetheatre.org.
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