Denton With dark, cropped hair and a warm smile, Tandy Cronyn appears willing to step into any role. From Sally Bowles in the U.S. tour of Cabaret in the late 1960s to nearly every Shakespeare female and some men Tandy reached her 60s and found herself in the position to do something new. That's why she's spending the summer at the University of North Texas in Denton.
Although The Tall Boy is a collaborative effort between Cronyn and director David Hammond, as well as Simon Bent who adapted the story, this has been Tandy's pet project for several years. "My first time out as a producer," Cronyn reflects on a Saturday morning before rehearsal. "This story got into my DNA and I knew I had to give it life. I've been happy to see all stages of its development."
The Tall Boy, which runs this weekend at UNT, is based on a short story by Kay Boyle, a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker during World War II. A few years ago, Cronyn plucked Boyle's collection The Smoking Mountain from a bookstore shelf. These stories were focused on postwar Germany, and a story titled The Lost caught Cronyn's eye. Many of the relationships necessary during the World Wars were demolished at its end. Boyle's fictional story took place at a displaced person's camp where three boys a Czech, a Pole and an Italian were placed after spending the war with American GIs. Although the boys wished to move to America, they weren't allowed.
"At its heart, there was a message of hope and acceptance," says Cronyn. "On its surface, the story is about cruelties of war and how refugees were treated after the war."
After performing in Bent's stage adaptation of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Cronyn was certain he had the theatrical flair to bring this story to the stage. Very little convincing was required for him to agree.
In Bent's Tall Boy, an American matron of a Bavarian camp for displaced persons relives the stories of the three boys. Cronyn plays all of the characters.
"All of the European boys have adopted the accents of the American GI's. One minute I sound like Jimmy Cagney," Cronyn says, slipping into a staccato Jersey accent. "The next I'm the American woman again. Bent developed a challenging, beautiful piece of theater."
Cronyn established her career as character actress. The daughter of Oscar- and Tony-winning actress Jessica Tandy and Tony-winning actor Hume Cronyn, she had her stage debut in a 1965 production of Peter Shaffer's one-act play The Private Ear. She's appeared in numerous theater productions and on television in popular shows including Guiding Light and Law and Order.
The experience of bringing The Tall Boy to stage was like nothing she's done before, which was one of the reasons she jumped at the chance to premiere it at the University of North Texas.
Marjorie Hayes, the managing director of Theatre Production at UNT was looking for ways to invigorate the school's programming. When she met Cronyn last year at the Playwright's Continuum at the Player's Club in New York City, their discussion of The Tall Boy aligned with Hayes's goal for the program.
"I read it and loved its message about idealism and resilience of children and the dream of 'America' as a symbol of freedom," Hayes says. "To have an actress with the wealth of experience and experience that Tandy has on campus, leading workshops was a wonderful coup for UNT theater."
This production is the pilot project for a summer program that will integrate students with theater professionals and community members. A healthy mix of faculty and students are working to bring this premiere of The Tall Boy to fruition.
"This has been a great experience," Cronyn says. "It's a long process you go through when developing a new play, but I couldn't ask for more wonderful people or a better environment. The only piece left is getting a live audience."