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Theater puts Franz, Duke, Travolta, Bannon together for one night

Six actors will take the stage. The set will consist of a few chairs. There will be no elaborate costumes. But when the lights go down and the curtain rises, those in the audience will see something remarkable.

Dennis Franz. Patty Duke. Ellen Travolta. Jack Bannon.

In this staged reading of “Over the River and Through the Woods,” these four will play the grandparents of Dane Stokinger’s Nick, who is about to move 3,000 miles away from his family’s home in New Jersey. Dismayed, they invite to their weekly Sunday dinner the lovely and single Caitlin – played by Stokinger’s wife, Jessica Skerritt.

Wednesday’s one-night-only staged reading of Joe DiPietro’s Off-Broadway hit will benefit Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre.

Travolta and Bannon are stalwarts of the stage at North Idaho College’s Schuler Performing Arts Center, having performed with Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre since 1990.

But the Oscar-winning Duke and the Emmy-winning Franz are doing their first work with Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. And for Franz, this week’s staged reading marks his first real work since his long-running TV series “NYPD Blue” ended in 2005.

“I’ve really been a respectful fan of the work that the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre has been doing over the years that we’ve been here,” said Franz, who owns a home on Lake Coeur d’Alene with his wife. “For a relatively small area, their productions are wonderful.”

Over the years, Franz said, Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre artistic director Roger Welch has asked Franz about doing plays. But Franz always declined. He never felt he had enough time to rehearse and do all the family things he enjoys doing in the summer. He also admits he’s enjoyed his time off from acting.

“Quite honestly, my laziness has been preventing me from jumping in full,” Franz said. “Then Roger called and said, ‘What if we did a one-night fundraiser reading?’ I thought I would love to contribute on that level. I said yes right away.”

That was before Welch sent him the script. After Franz read it, “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is fun.’ ”

Franz played Det. Andy Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue” for 12 years, earning four Emmys for outstanding lead actor in the process. When the show ended, he told his agents he wanted to take a year off.

“That year went by in about 10 minutes,” he said during a break in rehearsals at NIC. “I said, ‘Boy, I’m getting pretty used to this. I take to this pretty well.’ ”

He doesn’t use the word “retired,” however.

“I do still get scripts sent to me, I do still get offers, and I’m not closed to the possibility of something coming up. Maybe if it was a movie. I don’t think I’m up for another series. That smacks too much of work.”

Coming back to the theater has been fun, he said.

“I started on the stage,” said Franz, “so reading scripts aloud and doing the characters, doing a table read, was a welcome return to when I began in Chicago and started in the theater.”

This play – and the opportunity to work with friends Duke, Travolta and Bannon – was a big part of the draw.

“I love the storyline. It’s a very sweet story. It’s funny,” he said. “I like interacting with these other actors. And the dialogue is very clever and it’s poignant. So I enjoyed reading it and I enjoy doing it with these people.”

His fellow cast members all echo those sentiments.

“The play is a delight. It’s funny as hell and it’s also very profound,” said Duke, who goes by her real name, Anna Pearce, when she’s away from the stage. “And working with Ellen and Jack and the gang, it just gets your theater juices going again.”

Duke, who won an Oscar and an Emmy for work on two different productions of “The Miracle Worker,” acknowledges that it seems crazy she’s never worked with Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre.

“I have wanted to work with Roger and the theater since I moved here 23 years ago,” she said. “Unfortunately, every summer our schedules just ran into each other. So finally, here’s the opportunity,” she said recently.

Talking to the actors, it’s clear they have deep admiration for each other.

“I play Dennis’ wife and it’s just great fun to work with him,” Travolta said. “Roger’s been looking for a piece for Patty, Dennis and Jack and I to do together. We need to raise money and we thought what’s better than this? … So it just worked out and I think it’s going to be lovely.”

For Stokinger and Skerritt, the youngsters, the experience is pretty amazing.

“At that first read-through at Roger’s place, just sitting around his table, I look over and I see Patty Duke and Dennis Franz and I think, ‘What in the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I am?’ ” Stokinger said. “It was like a master class. I found myself taking notes.”

Skerritt added, “I would love to just stand and hold their water if someone would let me, just to be around the talent of this whole company.”

Stokinger, who’s in the current production of “Spamalot,” and Skerritt, who will be in “Ragtime” later this summer, both noted that “Over the River” is a good story that will be well told.

“One minute you’re laughing and getting a kick out of these nutcase grandparents who are so funny and the next minute they’re breaking your heart,” Stokinger said. “There are some monologues from the four of these incredible actors that are glorious. That’s awesome.”

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