Were it not for a Jefferson State basketball player, we might not have the joy of seeing Saxon Murrell on stage.
That’s probably not true, because if you’ve seen him on stage in anything – “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Sordid Lives” and many other productions – you know he was born to be there and would have found his way to it eventually.
Thankfully, he’s doing it in Birmingham, and his latest role is as Sheridan Whiteside in the classic comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
David McMahon is directing the production at the Virginia Samford Theatre that opens Friday and runs through Dec. 17. In addition to Murrell, the cast includes Jan D. Hunter, Sadie Sue Long, Flannery Whaley, Julia Hixson, Talia Lin, Ryder Dean, Kelsey Crawford, Barry Austin, Steven Hatcher, Kim Richardson, Matt Whaley, Chuck Duck, Hannah Rice, Trevor Miller, Nick Crawford, Cliff Spencer, Emily Dean, Rachel Stokes and Maddox Gates.
Murrell answered some questions about the show, as well as his theater career in Birmingham.
Are you from Birmingham?
I’m Birmingham-born and bred. I lived in Atlanta and New York for a short time, but Birmingham is always home. I studied theater at Jefferson State and UAB, but got my greatest theatrical education under the tutelage of Carl Stewart at Terrific New Theatre.
What was your introduction to theater?
I was working in the library at Jefferson State where I was studying merchandising and design. Several people involved in the theater department were also working in the library. We became friends, and it wasn’t long before I was helping build sets, hang lights and gather props. One day, my friend George told me they were having auditions for Ibsen’s “Ghosts” and I should try out for the role of Oswald Alving. The thought of standing on a stage before an audience terrified me, and I didn’t go to the auditions. The role of Oswald was won by a member of the Jefferson State basketball team. Two weeks before opening night, George walked up to me in the library and said the basketball player walked. He threw the script on the library counter and said, “You’re Oswald. Be there tonight at 6:30.” Two weeks later, I was playing Oswald, wearing costumes that had been built for a basketball player. But I made it work, and the show was very popular. That led to more shows and transferring to UAB with a new major.
Incidentally, the same thing happened for my first show at Terrific New Theatre. I was stage managing a production of “El Grande de Coca Cola” when one of the actors walked out. A week-and-a-half later we opened. I think we sold 30 tickets to the show, which is in Spanish, French, Italian and Russian with tons of very broad comedy so the audience can follow along. Of those 30, maybe seven people got it and still talk about it to this day. That was also the first time somebody walked out on me while I was on stage. But Steve Stella of Terrific New Theatre told me, “It isn’t art until somebody walks out!” So we made art that night, and I’m still feeling the buzz.
What has been your theater history here? Who have you worked with?
I appear on stage now because of David Elder, the director of the theater department at Jefferson State, and Carl Stewart of Terrific New Theatre. David gave me my first opportunity to perform and, over almost 30 years, Carl taught me everything I use on stage and back stage. I do have a day job – litigation paralegal.
If the role is right, I don’t care which theater is presenting it. I love working with different companies. Favorite roles – Man in Chair from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Graham Whittaker from “A Chip in the Sugar,” Preston Leroy (a/k/a “Peanut”) from “Southern Baptist Sissies.”
Tell me about “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Were you familiar with it before?
I had seen the film a few times but did not realize it was written by Kaufman and Hart. I had played Grandpa in “You Can’t Take It With You” (with many members of our current cast) and loved their style. When David told me he wanted to do it, I was all in!
Can you tell me about the character of Sheridan Whiteside? How would you describe him?
In short, Whiteside is the worst houseguest ever. He is demanding, egotistical, imperious and doesn’t care about the needs of anyone else. But he learns his lesson by the end of the show. The character is based on Alexander Woolcott, celebrated critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table, who stayed with one of the playwrights for a long weekend and proceeded to make everyone miserable.
What about your cast and director?
I first met David when he came to make his documentary, “Skanks.” He mentioned that he’d like to come back to Birmingham and do a show every year and we went from there. He’s created an incredible group of actors from many different theater companies. He creates an atmosphere that’s fun, warm and sometimes ridiculous. He has allowed me to perform in two Shakespeare plays, Moliere and now my second Kaufman and Hart play. The man has great taste in shows. He is a quiet director. He rarely gives you direction unless you ask for it. He’s terrific.
Your comedy roles have been so varied in Birmingham, from low, low comedy to much more high-brow stuff. Is it different for you as an actor?
Louis Armstrong said there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. I feel the same way about comedy, whether it’s low and very broad like “El Grande” or cultivated and erudite like “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
“The Man Who Came to Dinner,” at the Virginia Samford Theatre, Dec. 8-17.