At the height of his career, John Barrymore was one of the most popular figures of the stage and screen. He was one of the few actors who made a seamless transition from silent films to talkies, he could play light comedy as effortlessly as tragedy, and his interpretations of Richard III and Hamlet would forever change the way those characters were portrayed.
By the early 1940s, though, Barrymore was a has-been: He was no longer a box office draw, he began to have trouble memorizing lines and his crippling alcoholism was devastating to his health and his personal life (he was married and divorced four times). He died at 60, suffering from pneumonia that was exacerbated by cirrhosis.
His demise is one of the saddest in all of Hollywood lore, and his final days are dramatized in the Tony-winning play “Barrymore,” which is being presented by Spokane’s Interplayers Theatre. Written by William Luce, the show is mostly a one-man affair, as a fictionalized Barrymore ruminates on his life and career while preparing for a revival of “Richard III” that he hopes will bring him back to prominence.
“He’s rented a theater for one night to run the lines,” said Patrick Treadway, who plays Barrymore in the Interplayers production. “In the course of that evening, he apparently imagines an audience there and reminiscences with them. It sounds tragic and dark, but really it’s very funny because John was such a witty man.”
It’s a challenge in itself to personify a man as legendary as Barrymore, but it’s another challenge entirely when the most famous take on the role was by someone as equally legendary as Christopher Plummer, who starred in the Broadway production.
“I watched as much John Barrymore as I could, not to imitate him but to get a sense of the man,” Treadway said, though he admits he was initially hesitant before watching a filmed production of Plummer as Barrymore. “I was able to look at it objectively,” he said. “I realized I didn’t have anything to worry about because we’re so entirely different. My take on John Barrymore is so very different from his that I would have to really try to imitate Christopher Plummer in order to do what he’s doing.”
Although “Barrymore” is set firmly in the past (it takes place months after the attack on Pearl Harbor), Treadway said the show – and Barrymore’s plight in general – is still a relevant reminder of the curses of stardom and excess; he points to actors such as River Phoenix and Heath Ledger, who both died in their 20s from drug overdoses, as more modern examples.
“My director, Mary Starkey, pointed out that this show follows the five stages of grief, beginning with denial and ending with acceptance,” Treadway said. “That was a really cool observation, and I think there’s a universality about it that will really appeal to audiences.”
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