A Toms River Resident Takes to the Stage in an Acclaimed Show
Toms River resident Tony DiDia is a musical director, singer, and actor, and will be part of the ensemble cast of a local production of the critically acclaimed play and movie, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" at Mercer County Community College. I had an opportunity to chat with Tony and director Lou Stalsworth.
Tony, you’re an Ocean County resident – this play must have really caught your attention to bring you out to Mercer County. How did you hear that it was being produced?
I was working on another project with Lou and found out through him that his company was mounting it. I haven’t been on stage in eight years and have been talking about doing a drama and getting back on stage for a few years. The opportunity just hasn’t presented itself until now and I love the script. So I auditioned. I’m thankful that Lou felt I could add to this production.
Is there anything that specifically drew you to this material?
I came out in the mid 80’s and was part of an extended family such as the one portrayed in the script. I can relate to every character and every situation, we (my previous partner and I) even took care of friends who eventually passed from AIDS and cancer. I lost my partner of 11 years in 2000. I lived through many of the situations. It’s very close to me.
Tell us a bit about your character, Arthur.
Arthur is an accountant and partnered to Perry Sellers for 14 years. He is much like a mother hen. He’s very intelligent. He likes to keep the peace, and make sure everyone is happy. He likes to have fun but in a reserved kind of way and he is somewhat spontaneous. I think he’s afraid of being alone, dying and losing Perry. I think he’s afraid of living life without Perry. He loves Perry very much. He is a mediator.
Do you see any of Arthur’s qualities in yourself?
Yes I do. There are a lot of commonalities. I’ve always been afraid to be alone. I’ve been with my partner for 12 years. As I get older the more afraid of dying I get. I too like to keep the peace and make sure everyone is happy. I too am a mediator. I’m becoming a mother hen too.
How long have you been acting? What other shows have you done?
Primarily I’ve been a musical director since 1981. Along the way I’ve done a lot of singing roles and picked up a few acting roles such as Noah in "Children of Eden", Juan Peron in "Evita", and I’ve done a few Agatha Christie murder mysteries.
Are there any specific exercises or rituals that you do to get into character?
Not really rituals, I just have to focus on who I am (Arthur).
Is there anything else that you would like to add about the script, the production, your fellow actors, etc?
I think that I’m part of something very very special. The cast is amazing. The script is wonderfully written. It’s a great chance to grow, learn and hone my craft. I thank Lou for his patience and teaching.
Lou, as a director, what drew you to “Love! Valour! Compassion!”?
It always comes down to the spoken word. My training is as a playwright. The spoken language, the written language ... these separate us from all other species. What (writer Terrence) McNally has done with LVC is beyond beautiful. It is breath-taking. Not since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" has dialogue sounded so good. Listening to these eight men talk ~ argue, flirt, console ~ is like sitting in on a private moment with eight great friends.
The play focuses on a group of gay men. You’ve mentioned that you are heterosexual and you don’t see this as a “gay play”. What are some of the themes that we can all identify with?
Emotions aren't defined by gender, nor are they defined by orientation. The title of this show encompasses three of the highest and most human of emotions. To what more can anyone aspire? We should all love. We should face adversity with valor, and never lose our compassion.
Paraphrasing a line from the script ("there is no such thing as gay music") ... there is no such thing as a gay play. There are simply plays ~ bad plays, good plays, and occasionally great plays. This is a great play. I'm a theatre junkie, married to theatre junkie. We select shows that entertain us. Last season we produced "Sunday in the Park With George". It's Sondheim and it's a show audiences love or hate, but it's great theatre and its themes universal. We look at LVC the same way and chose it for the same reasons.
Both the play and the 1997 film adaptation have a pretty impressive pedigree of awards and actors, like Nathan Lane and Jason Alexander, did you feel like you had a lot to live up to?
The challenge isn't in replicating anyone's performance. The challenge is bringing the show to life. And this script challenges everyone. Not just the actors, not just the director. The set designer and the lighting designer have to come at it with the same passion. And I am fortunate to be supported by a most talented team. My wife, Kate Pinner, is my set and costume designer, and she's been making my work look good on stage for 30-plus years. Bob Terrano is my lighting designer. He's been painting all my shows in the best possible light for the last five years. My stage manager, Matt Luppino, is young and new to the PinnWorth team, but he identifies with the show and works with as much dedication as does anyone else in the production team. My specific challenge then, is to channel everyone toward the same goal: The best damned production we've ever done.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about the script, the production, the actors, etc?
There is so much I want to say, but I do tend to wax rhapsodic. And at length. But here's a thought: For all the script's strengths, it's a tough show to perform. And it's a long show. A real three-act theater piece. And, sadly in the eyes many, it's not a musical. Then it dares to touch on dark themes ~ infidelity, AIDS, death ... even while making you laugh out loud. For those reasons the show is seldom done in community theater. This isn't one of those time-tested musical chestnuts the Blue Hairs fill the house to see. What this is then, is the opportunity for anyone and everyone ~ gender and orientation being irrelevant ~ to enjoy an evening of eves-dropping on a bunch of guys sitting around talking about what makes the world go 'round: Love! Valour! Compassion! God, do I love this show!
My sincere thanks to Tony, Lou, and photographer Bob Terrano for their time and insight! If you'd like to catch "Love! Valour! Compassion!", it will be playing at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College this weekend and next weekend (Friday and Saturday shows at 8pm and Sunday shows at 2pm).