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Breathing Under Dirt: An interview with Michael O’Leary and Grant Aleksander

They both stand when I approach. Michael O’Leary is tall. He has a warm face that invites conversation and his handshake is firm, strong. Here is a man who exudes confidence, a man accustomed to sitting down and chatting with total strangers about his life and his work. He wears blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a gray jacket which he takes off halfway through our conversation. It is a warm day in Berlin but not hot, and as we sit on the porch of the Atlantic Hotel a breeze drifts lazily over us. His silver analog watch seems large on his arm, but it is big enough for me to read from afar.

Grant Aleksander has a shock of blonde hair that is cut medium length and frames his youthful face. He has piercing eyes and when he talks he looks directly at me. I am almost pulled into him, and I can see why millions of television viewers for years were enraptured by his charisma. He folds his hands across a black shirt, blue jean clad legs crossed at the ankles. He rocks in the chair and looks out onto the street.

“This is a lovely little town,” he says.

“The coolest small town in America,” I say with a grin.

Michael and Grant speak with an easy going style, and they seem remarkably comfortable with one another, an ease that comes from years of friendship and experience. They are both former cast members of the longest running drama in American television history, Guiding Light. Over the years they became close friends and developed something of a shorthand together. While they don’t complete each other’s sentences, they do seem to read each other’s thoughts. And when it comes to the play they have come to Berlin to promote, they are of the same mind.

Set in the south during the Korean Conflict, Breathing Under Dirt is about Patience, a woman plagued by the memory of the dead: her father, her sister, the dogwoods in the garden. She tends to her father’s chrysanthemums in that same garden with her wheelchair-bound mother. Grace gives Patience brutal honesty and tough love. The two women clash over the past. Patience has put her father on a pedestal as a way to deal with her own painful memories. Grace, with biting sarcasm, refuses to let her dead husband’s image be falsely polished.

In the midst of her struggle Patience meets Jack Riley, who is the epitome of all the good she wanted her father to be. He is strong and firm, he has eyes only for her, and best of all he doesn’t drink. “Only grenadine and coke, like me,” Patience tells her mother. But Jack may be just as unreal as her memories of her father. When we first meet him he’s a little too perfect, and as their relationship unfolds we see a darker side of the man Patience believes to be her savior.

The play started as an entry to the Manhattan Repertory Theatre’s One Act Play Competition in the spring of 2016. After it won first place, Michael, in a furious month of writing, expanded it to a full length show. Grant, who directed the one act version, was eager to stay involved as the play grew in length and depth.

“There is no way I could do this play without Grant,” Michael says.

“The writing is compelling,” Grant adds. “The play leads you to believe it is about something bigger than itself.”

The two men struggled with casting for the part of Jack until Grant had an idea. “I wondered if I could still play the young Marine,” he jokes as he flashes a grin that soap opera fans across the world remember. The casting was a perfect fit. Jack is a jaded soldier just back from the Korean Conflict who, unlike Patience, does not believe in the power of love. “War conquers everything,” he tells her, “Including love.” He is the antagonist to Patience’s fragile ego, and it seems to be a role suited to a man who spent more than twenty years playing the troubled Phillip Spaulding.

Grant will also direct the play, and for him that dual role is the biggest challenge. “As a director I get caught up in directing the play, in standing back and observing the actors and giving them notes. As an actor, though, I have to be engaged in the moment.” He smiles warmly. “My wife will be there at every performance, though, giving me notes.” He laughs. “She tells it like it is.”

The play, according to Michael, is about reconciliation and rebirth, about coming to terms with your own mistakes and recognizing that in order to ask for the forgiveness of others we must first seek that forgiveness within ourselves. For both of them seeing the play produced will be the culmination of some intense hard work. “It’s one thing to write the play,” Michael says. “It’s another thing entirely to see it produced.”

Grant adds, “Michael has written some real truths. The production, and the performances, will be full of the same heart.”

In that vein, Michael and Grant have recruited some bigs names for the production in Princess Anne in August. Tina Sloan, another Guiding Light alum, will play Grace. Cynthia Watros, who also spent some time on Guiding Light (and is well known to those of us who watched Lost), plays Patience. “Cynthia perfects this role,” Michael says. “I am in awe of her talent.” Rounding out the cast will be local actor Robert Forrester as the father.

It was Robert, in fact, who helped bring Breathing Under Dirt to the Eastern Shore.

“It’s impossible get a play produced in New York,” Michael says. “So we knew that if we wanted to take the first step to get this together then we wanted to do it in a regional theater.”

Robert has been a life-long Guiding Light fan and follows Michael through social media. When he saw the play had won the competition he sent Michael a congratulatory note, mentioning that he was part of the new Lower Shore Performing Arts Company (LSPAC) and they were looking for a show to help raise money.

“I felt I knew Robert through our emails pretty well,” says Michael. “I liked the idea of bringing the first production of the show to a small theater. And if we could help with this new company, help them raise some money, that would be great, too.”

Grant, who is from the Baltimore area, loved the idea of bringing the play to a small community. His wife, in true Eastern Shore, everyone knows everyone way, is old friends with Kathryn Redden, a producer of the play and another founding member of LSPAC. Bringing the play to Princess Anne seemed a perfect fit. The team wanted to draw on the  community and held auditions to round out smaller parts with local actors. “There is a lot of talent here,” Grant adds.

During our nearly two hour chat on the porch of the Atlantic Hotel we are interrupted half a dozen times by fans. They do not seek autographs, but instead want to have their photos taken with “Rick” and “Phillip.” Both men are gracious and kind with fans of a show that has been off the air for seven years. One young woman tells us it is her mother who is the bigger fan of the long running soap opera.

“You’ll have to drag her out to see the play in August,” Michael jokes.

She laughs. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll have to drag her.”

Breathing Under Dirt, written by Michael O’Leary, directed by Grant Aleksander and starring Cynthia Watros and Tina Sloan, will be presented at the Ella Fitzgerald Center for Performing Arts in Princess Anne, MD, on August 13 and 14, 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets go to lowershorepac.org.

Jeffrey Smith
Jeffrey Smithhttp://www.rustlingreed.com/blog
Jeffrey Smith started writing at fourteen on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter he borrowed from his father. His most recent book, Mesabi Pioneers, tells the story of the immigrants who turned a remote area of northern Minnesota into America's greatest source of iron ore. Jeffrey lives in Berlin with his wife, daughter, and three cats. He can often be seen running along the streets, boardwalks, and trails of the Lower Eastern Shore. That's probably him there, in the orange.

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