Translating what many consider to be the “great American novel” to the stage is no simple task — just ask Stephen Wrentmore. He is the director of “The Great Gatsby,” which is presented by the Arizona Theatre Company and will be playing at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix beginning Thursday. Although the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is set in 1922, Wrentmore believes that the themes of the story are timelier than ever.
“It should make us think about the world we’re living in today because what Fitzgerald is talking about is what I call now ‘the 1 percent,’” Wrentmore said. “He’s critical of the way the world behaves so looking at ‘The Great Gatsby’ today, what changed? How has the world changed? That provocation is positively Fitzgerald, and this production re-asks that question.”
Wrentmore first came from London to work with the Arizona Theatre Company 10 years ago, and has been involved with a few of its productions over the years. After becoming the associate artistic director for the company last year, he felt “The Great Gatsby” would be an interesting choice coming to the story as what he calls an “outsider.”
“The challenge initially is about dealing with, what I will say, is a precious object,” Wrentmore said. “It’s a national treasure of a story, and (people have) their romantic ideal because they read it ‘X’ number of years ago.”
“The Great Gatsby” recently concluded a three-week run in Tucson before coming to Phoenix, and consists of actors from the area along with New York and Los Angeles.
Monette Magrath, who plays the role of the charming Daisy Buchanan, helped develop the character in the first reading of this particular adaption in Los Angeles. She is thrilled to be reprising the role in this production, and continues to be fascinated by the immense depth of her character.
“She is a little bit like a butterfly,” Magrath said. “She sort of alights on things, but not for very long. The truth is she’s pretty desperately lonely and miserable. I think that’s exciting for me, this sort of turbulent nature underneath that bubbles up from time to time. By the end, I think it’s very clear that her head is barely above the surface.”
Zachary Ford plays Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story in both the play and novel. Although he believes Nick has an interesting arc, he often times has trouble agreeing with the character’s moral choices.
“It’s always a challenge as an actor to be able to see a situation and wish you could behave in a certain way, a way that the script doesn’t support,” Ford said. “It creates these delicious inconsistencies that you as an actor have to justify, and that’s where you reveal the imperfections of character that make us all human.”
The rehearsal period for “Gatsby” lasted four weeks, with three in the rehearsal room and another technical week on stage. The cast was able to build relationships with each other during this time, which Wrentmore describes as one of the happiest rehearsal periods of his career.
“Everybody that’s worked on it has been really playful, really imaginative, and I can genuinely say that I don’t know where my work as a director ends and the work of any one of the designers or any one of the actors begins,” Wrentmore said. “The edges have become so blurred. That’s a genuine pleasure for me.”
Aside from their passion for the play itself, the cast has a genuine respect and adoration for Fitzgerald’s original novel.
Macgrath, in particular, looked to the book when trying to evoke Daisy’s distinctive voice that sounds “like money.” She and Ford both hope they capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s characters while still offering a new interpretation of the story.
“I’m an avid reader and ‘The Great Gatsby’ has been one of my favorites for years,” Ford said. “No one capitalizes on adverbs quite like Fitzgerald. The way people tend to remember it is so different from the story we’re trying to tell each night. I hope that when the audience leaves they’re rethinking what they were pretty sure they knew when they came in.”
Wrentmore believes this production stands on its own as a unique piece of art, but hopes that audiences will find their way back to the novel upon seeing this play.
“I think any art worth its place on stage has to stand up for itself as a piece of art and I think in many, many moments of this play we achieve that,” Wrentmore said. “I would love for (the audience) to say that they saw a completely fresh take on ‘Gatsby’ and then go home to read the novel to remind themselves what an extraordinary book it is.”
As for the upcoming 3-D film adaption of “The Great Gatsby,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan? Macgrath has a few words of advice for Valley audiences.
“They can see ‘Gatsby’ in 3-D way before it’s in the movie theaters,” Macgrath laughed. “Theater is the original 3-D.”
“The Great Gatsby” will be playing at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, 222 E. Monroe St., March 22 to April 8.
To purchase tickets, visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call (602) 256-6995.
Patrick Ryan is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a sophomore at Arizona State University.