By Joseph Hurley
There’s very probably no more challenging play, in terms of the task it sets before anyone attempting to direct it, than Shelagh Stephenson’s "An Experiment With an Air Pump," with its complicated, double-tiered time frame, with part of the action taking place in 1799 and the rest in 1999, and its subtle intellectual underscoring, pitting humanism against the relentless interests of scientific endeavor.
And yet the man who steered the play to excellent notices and generally enthusiastic audiences at Manhattan Theatre Club’s mainstage, where the production will continue through Dec. 12, is among the most relaxed and seemingly stress-free of American theater professionals.
Doug Hughes is so laid back, in fact, that Daniel Gerroll, who plays the taxing double role at the heart of "An Experiment With an Air Pump," remembers rehearsals for the play as being "like an endless, ongoing cocktail party, only without the alcohol."
For his part, Hughes knows precisely what it was about Stephenson’s demanding play that made him want to tackle it in the first place. "I love plays that aim high," he said on a recent afternoon, sprawling in the theater’s first row, facing designer John Lee Beatty’s cleanly elegant set.
"I love the idea of furnishing the audience with a meditation on history and progress, as this one does. My job was to find a way to allow the playwright’s argument to take place without anyone in the audience feeling as though they were back in school again."
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As Hughes, who is artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, spent a day at MTC, checking his cast and putting in the play’s single replacement, a newcomer to the role of the family’s willful older daughter in the work’s past tense, and an equally tough-minded young scientist in its present day scenes, his parents, actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, were at Boston’s Colonial Theater, appearing in Noel Coward’s 1960 comedy "Waiting in the Wings." Hughes, of course, is well known among Irish film theatergoers for his performance in the title role of Hugh Leonard’s "Da."
Since Hughes and his sister, Laura, his only sibling, are both involved in the professional theater, it’s tempting to wonder how actively they were encouraged in their career choices by their stage veteran parents.
It’s obviously a question the 44-year-old director is often asked, but one he still manages to answer with a kind of freshness and openness.
"In a way," Hughes said, "I was encouraged to do other things. I was a biology major at Harvard College, and I never had any sort of formal training in the theater. It was pretty late in the undergraduate game that I did anything at all in terms of drama."
When Hughes did finally manifest an active interest in the field in which his parents had worked all their lives, the family reaction might be described as slightly on the positive side of neutrality. "I’d say they were quietly encouraging. They weren’t overjoyed," he said, "nor were they fearful."
Hughes Sr. and Stenborg didn’t have to warn their son that there might be difficult times, since, after all, he had been raised in a family that had experienced a certain measure of struggle at times. The underlying fact, perhaps, is that Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg love their lives and their careers, a fact which has always been fully apparent to both their actress daughter and their director son.
"My parents consider themselves extravagantly fortunate to be a part of the theater, and while they would never paint it as a rosy existence, or a way of life that guarantees security, they’re too much in love with the profession to put much stress on its cruelties," Hughes said.
Hughes admits that there have been moments when, as he puts it, he "fretted and fumed and worried" about the choice he’d made. "They always came back with the very good advice that it was my decision, and I should learn to live with it," he said. "I never felt that I was being discouraged on the one hand or pushed on the other."
As an adolescent and even earlier, Hughes did have a considerable amount of experience as a performer, particularly as a boy soprano. As he grew a bit older, Hughes appeared in several Shakespeare productions at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, generally singing the songs associated with the plays, among them "As You Like It."
"It was 1973," he said, "and I was 17 and I’d just graduated from high school at Trinity here in New York. I understudied Meat Loaf, who was playing Amiens. It was a great job to have at age 17."
It was at about this time that Barnard Hughes began an ongoing association with the Shakespeare Festival, a fact that affected positively on his son’s future.
"That was when I began to be captivated by what he did on the stage," Hughes said. "I knew what he did, but that was the time I really became turned on by what was going on. It reached a level of great admiration. He was a great Polonius to Stacy Keach’s Hamlet, and the whole thing seemed to me to have what I can only call a sense of mission. Those were some of the really great days of the Public Theatre and the Shakespeare Festivals."
Hughes, looking back on his early career, said he feels that the greatest lessons he learned concerning the theater came from watching his parents live their lives day to day.
"The education I had about the theater has a lot to do, really, with their example, not so much from anything they ever said." Hughes said. "It was their own conduct in the job, their sense of dedication and professionalism, and, frankly, their freedom from a lot of the cant and the purely theoretical posturing that so often clouds the issue and gets in the way of the delivery of a play on the stage."
There was a time in Doug Hughes seventeenth summer when he was having his first experience with Shakespeare in the Park, while his father was on Broadway, supporting George C. Scott and Nicol Williamson in "Uncle Vanya," and his mother was working in Greenwich Village as part of the original off-Broadway cast of Lanford Wilson’s hit, "The Hot L Baltimore."
"I remember walking home one night, after a particularly wonderful and beautiful night with 2,000 enthusiastic people sitting under the stars watching ‘As You Like It,’ and we sat around the dining room table and talked about what we were doing," he said. "I remember saying how wonderful it all made me feel, and my father said, ‘Don’t tell a soul, because if you do, everyone will want to do it!’ "