A director’s second act


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With “Time Stands Still,” Jerry Heymann gets personal


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  • The theater director Jerry Heymann is returning to directing after a 25-year hiatus. Photo courtesy of New Light Theater Project




  • Cast rehearsing "Time Stands Still." Jerry Heymann is directing Donald Margulies' play, which will be staged at the 13th Street Repertory Company starting February 8. Photo courtesy of New Light Theater Project




BY ANGELA BARBUTI

When Jerry Heymann first came to New York, in 1970, he lived on East Fourth Street, a few blocks from La MaMa, the now iconic basement theater known for its progressive work. The New Orleans native was one of the first to direct there, after befriending its founder Ellen Stewart. In that show, “Call Me Charlie,” he directed Danny DeVito in one of his first professional acting roles, and the two remain close to this day.

After a 25-year hiatus, where he was raising a family and dealing with health issues, Heymann, 75, is back to pursuing his passion, and his newest project is the revival of Donald Margulies’ play “Time Stands Still.” The play, nominated for a Tony Award in 2010, tells the story of a photojournalist who was injured while covering the war in Iraq and her reporter boyfriend, who harbors feelings of guilt about the accident. The couple returns to New York, and are of completely different mindsets — she wants to go back there and he wants to create a new life here.

For Heymann, the show holds special meaning, as he and his wife, former director-turned-psychologist Marjorie Melnick, were in a taxi accident back in 2013.

The Upper West resident sang the praises of the cast and crew of “Time Stands Still,” which is being presented by the indie-company, New Light Theater Project. “As a director, I get people together to make something and when the people are interested in taking a lot of responsibility on themselves, I’m of the school where you cast well and get out of the way.”

What is your educational background and how did it lead to your pursuit of theater?

I went to Stanford and got a history degree. I took one theater course and was interested, so went to Tulane to take undergraduate and graduate theater courses to see if I liked it and to get me prepared for graduate school. And there was a visiting professor from Carnegie Tech who said, “You should go to Carnegie.” And I said, “Fine.” And I went to Carnegie and got an MFA and PhD in theater. There was also the Vietnam War; I had to go in the Reserves as a medic, so that took some time.

What was it like for you when you first got to New York?

I got an adjunct job teaching at Lehman College. And somehow, I became friends with Ellen Stewart. Maybe she was from the South, but we kind of took to each other. That summer, I took an acting workshop with Andre Gregory. And after that, a guy who was like their techie, Mike Moran, had a play. We worked on it for a few months and I asked Ellen if we could do it there. We did, and just by chance, the star of the show was Danny DeVito. And it was a nice success and we moved it to the Performing Garage. After that, I directed two or three shows a year.

You were one of the first directors to work at La MaMa. What was it like then?

It was neat. I was just kind of friends with Ellen. When I first came to New York, I lived on Fourth Street, between La MaMa and Phebe’s. Actually, it’s funny, my wife’s first show in New York starred Danny and Rhea Perlman.

Do you keep in touch with Danny?

Oh yeah, we’re close friends. Our kids are about the same age.

Tell us about “Time Stands Still” and what makes it special to you.

First of all, it’s kind of personal to me, because the two main characters were both in a very bad accident. My wife and I were in a taxi accident, where she is still somewhat impaired. I actually died for a minute. And also, I’m really interested in the mess in Iraq and Syria, which these people were involved with. I’m really interested in the fact that she wants to get back to it. And his experience is such that now he wants to get away from it and have a pleasant life. And it doesn’t hurt that the play is extremely well written. And it’s nice to do a well-written play.

What message are you trying to convey to the audience?

That having the desire to do something and having a marriage are difficult propositions. [Laughs] And you know, we decided to have three children. It kind of put a crimp in my directing, because I felt a strong responsibility to not travel. I did a show in Los Angeles where I was basically, kind of away for three months. And we had a one-year-old, five-year-old and an eight-year-old. My father got incapacitated and I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, so I decided to be a good family guy. And I had all kinds of health problems. This accident was a huge deal. And now I can do, to a limited extent, what I really want to do, which is direct plays.

What was it like directing the cast and crew of this project?

It’s just like being with a bunch of nice people who are correctly motivated. Who want to do a really good job and are pretty generous with me and the other actors. It’s a very, very pleasant situation where everybody is really trying to make a play, rather than say to themselves, “How can I get downstage and impress the audience?”

Time Stands Still runs from February 8 to 24 at the 13th Street Repertory Company





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