Ted Sod: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Christopher Denham: I was born on the southside of Chicago. Educated down at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A great theater training program under Henson Keys and Daniel Sullivan. Amazing teachers and an amazing theater complex in the middle of the cornfields. Spent my formative years worshipping at the Steppenwolf altar. Steppenwolf represented a certain kind of acting from a certain kind of city. A little rough around the edges. A little unpolished. Blue collar actors without perfect diction or posture. But a vital sense of authenticity. All my heroes are from Chicago: Terry Kinney, Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Denis O'Hare. That was the kind of actor I wanted (and want) to be. When I finally was able to work at Steppenwolf, it was the ultimate stamp of approval.
TS: Why did you choose to do this play and this role?
CD: I had been working primarily in film and television for the past three years. I was dying to dive back into theater. I was reading lots of plays, but Steven's writing made a lasting impression on me. He managed somehow to craft characters you care about, despite their glaring flaws. The story he was telling wasn't just topical. It's about something bigger than derivatives trading. It's about redemption. Who gets to decide who gets a second chance? Steven's writing is deeply human and, incidentally, deeply funny. Also, David Morse was on board and I knew I could learn a lot from him. Every actor I've ever met has nothing but the highest respect for David's work. He brings a profound sense of reality to every role. I've also been a big fan of Scott Ellis for a long time. He has directed so many of my favorite productions. I knew he could somehow get something good out of me.
TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t started yet, but can you share some of your preliminary thoughts about James with us?
CD: Steven has written a complicated, conflicted young man. In many ways, James has had the wind knocked out of him. Ten years ago, he had a very clear idea of what his life would be. And then his life was derailed. He lost his confidence. The trajectory of the play, I think, is James crawling out of this black hole. Learning how to walk again. How to stop this cycle of self-victimization and self-pity and kickstart his life.
TS: What do you think the play is about?
CD: A bad play, written by a bad writer, would be about James forgiving Tom. That would be obvious. This play isn't about that. It's about something more complicated, more insidious. In my opinion, Steven is essentially telling us that no one really knows anyone. We think we know our loved ones, our family members. We don't. Everyone has hidden depths. Things they don't reveal. Things they lie about, either to you or to themselves. When they arrest a serial killer, the neighbors never say: "yeah, he was a psychopath." The neighbors always say: "he was the nicest man. I had no idea he was capable of this crime." That's what this play is about.
TS: Can you talk about the relationship between James and his father, Tom?
CD: Like any father/son relationship, there are several iterations of the relationship. At one time, for a long time, they were very close. That's what makes the fall from grace so tragic. They had so far to fall. For James, it is almost inconceivable that his Dad committed these crimes. In many scenes, he almost has to remind himself that Tom is a master manipulator. He is, as James says, "incapable of telling the truth." Tom has to be seen through the prism of his misdeeds.
TS: What do you feel is happening between James and Katie?
CD: When it comes to Katie, James has found an intelligent, funny person who has rekindled something inside him. James has kind of thrown in the towel in many regards. He's taken himself out of the game. Katie has been through a difficult relationship. They have that vulnerability as a common denominator. Damaged goods.
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.
This interview is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin