Father Tim in Shattered Vows

David Morse - How I Learned to Drive

6/13/96 Star-Ledger (Newark N.J.) 071
1996 WL 7941913
The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ
Copyright Newark Morning Ledger Co., 1996

Thursday, June 13, 1996


For Morse, one-man show a matter of faith


When David Morse opens An Almost Holy Picture at the McCarter Theatre tomorrow night, he will, for the third time in his professional career, be playing a man who chose to be a priest.

Says Morse, "In last year's production of On the Waterfront on Broadway, I played Father Barry, the role Karl Malden played in the film. And while most actors quickly try to forget their short-running shows (On the Waterfront ran all of a week) Morse isn't morose at the thought of his.

"I'm delighted to have been a part of the biggest dramatic flop in history,” he says of the play that cost investors $2 million-plus. "Somehow, I feel fulfilled because I was part of that classic Broadway experience of being in a real bomb.

He almost wasn't. Morse wasn't originally cast in the stage version of the famous film. "They needed someone to replace Terry Kinney, who left. Frankly, I couldn't even remember the character from the movie, and I was going to turn the job down, but my wife told me I'd be nuts not to play such a great role. Even though, he says with a deep breath, "I'd be in front of an audience for only seven days. But I finally decided to do it.

So Morse, 42, was part of the cast at that fateful performance when one of its actors suffered a heart attack on stage.

"I wasn't on when it happened, says Morse, "but was downstairs, because I wouldn't be on for a while. In a small way, he was glad of that: "I've always been afraid that someday I'd be eating in a restaurant, a person would have some sort of attack, and everyone would look at this 'doctor' and expect me to do something.

That's because, of course, Morse had made his fame on the television series St. Elsewhere, where he portrayed Dr. Jack "Boomer Morrison for six seasons. It led to some new opportunities including his second role as a priest.

"That was in a 1984 made-for-TV movie called Shattered Vows, he says, referring to the film in which a nun, played by Valerie Bertinelli, pursued him. "It did well in the ratings. I think more people saw me in that than anything else I've ever done.

Certainly more than On the Waterfront. But as a genuine priest might say, when "God closes a door, He opens a window.” And David Morse wouldn't be doing An Almost Holy Picture now had he not done "On the Waterfront.”

"A friend of the playwright, Heather McDonald, saw me in the show and thought I'd be good for her play,” he says. "It's a one-man show, a kind of different one, in that it doesn't deal with a illustrious character who comes out with a lot of historical anecdotes. Though there is a good deal of story-telling in this play.

"I'd never had the right opportunity to do a one-man show, and I thought this might be it. So I signed on, and we did it in La Jolla (California), where it was voted the best play of the year.”

Still, Morse had to have faith worthy of a priest with this play.

"We almost did it in New York last year, but the details with contracts and scheduling just couldn't be worked out. I felt it'd never happen, like it was Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain all over again. That was the play in which I was supposed to make my Broadway debut four years ago. I'd done it in Seattle, but they couldn't get it all together in time for me to be in it. A short but pregnant pause. "Things fall apart so quickly in this business.”

But not this time. "When we heard McCarter had an open slot in its New Play Festival, we grabbed it. The script deals with an event in Heather's life that sparked something within her. It's the story of a man who was once a priest, but left the order when he lost his faith. Now he's a groundskeeper who has a nine-year-old daughter whom he greatly loves, but she's been affected by a rare disease that causes a great change in their relationship.

"I know I'm not saying much,” he says, "but I really want to be as vague as possible so people who come to see the play will really be surprised. So I won't say any more.”

And you know how good priests are at keeping secrets.



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