If you saw Parkland College Theatre’s production of Pride & Prejudice last season, then I’m sure you remember the tall, genial gentleman who played Mr. Bennet, pater familias of a bustling household of daughters. (For those who didn’t, here’s my review of the show, which was pretty tremendous.) You probably wondered, as you observed his easygoing portrayal and listened to his mellifluous tones, “Who is this actor?”
If you didn’t already know, the answer is Randy Offner (pictured here, with Eric Schacht, in Pride & Prejudice).
A number of years ago, when the C-U theatre scene and I were on a break, I had the pleasure of directing Mr. Offner in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace for Rantoul Theatre Group. When auditions were held, and Randy walked in, his imposing verticality (which is what I’m calling it) and deep voice made him a shoo-in for the role of Jonathan Brewster, the sinister escaped-criminal brother of the show’s protagonist. What could not have been guessed on first sight, however, was what a funny, generous, endearing actor was inside that impressive frame.
Over the course of a few weeks of rehearsal, Offner proved to be a talented and dedicated actor, one whose work I would always anticipate with interest. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see that he had been cast in Joi Hoffsommer’s production of P&P last season, and he was utterly charming in a role that was worlds removed from Jonathan Brewster.
When I learned that Offner would be playing composer Ludwig von Beethoven in the upcoming Station Theatre production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, I had to reach out to him. Not just because I’m a fan of his work, but because, ultimately, I think you will be, too.
Smile Politely: Correct me if I’m wrong, but…first show at the Station?
Randy Offner: Yup, very first show at the Station. I’ve always wanted to be in a show there but just either never had the courage to audition there or else scheduling conflicts prevented any such opportunities from being possible. With this show, neither obstacle was a factor. Thom [Schnarre] and Tim [O’Neal] and Shawna [Smith] were incredibly welcoming and supportive of this nervous Station Theater newbie at the auditions for this show, and I’m enjoying doing my best to make their taking a chance on this newbie the right decision!
SP: Tell me a little about the character you’re playing. Aside from being famous and historical and important, what do we need to know about him?
Offner: That he’s human! I’ve long been a huge-o fan of Haydn, and one of the things that got me hooked on his music was reading about him and all the struggles he went through not only before his successes but during them. As I researched Beethoven for this role, I realized that he and Haydn had that in common. Beethoven is a genius, a prodigy, a moody sot, a perfectionist, and a scared little boy all jammed together in that crazy-coiffed body of his. I’d argue that each one of us can relate to having so many colors on our own easel (to mix artistic metaphors), which makes Beethoven as human—and thus as “accessible”—as you or I.
SP: Now that we know more about Beethoven, tell us a little about you. Where are you from? What do you do when you’re not acting?
Offner: I’m a townie. Born and raised here in Urbana. When I’m not acting or working (at those three radio stations at the corner of Neil and Windsor—shameless plug!), I’m working out or enjoying a caramel chai somewhere. My parents live with me, and they are of course my top priority; it is a humble learning experience, being able to “return the favor” to two people who mean so much to me and who have done so much for me.
SP: How long have you been acting in local theatre?
Offner: My very first play was The Brick and the Rose by Carlino, back in good old Urbana High School (go Tigers!) in 1981. The rest is ongoing infamy.
SP: Are there any past roles or productions that stand out as favorites? (I particularly liked you as the father in Pride & Prejudice.)
Offner: Pride and Prejudice was a special experience for me as it was my first major role at Parkland, so I’m grateful and glad that you liked my contribution to that play. My all-time favorite role remains Wally Fergusson in 1940’s Radio Hour. More recently, though, I especially enjoyed being Manningham in Angel Street. My acting idol is Jimmy Stewart, and that role was as far from Jimmy as a thespian could get, to put it nicely, and I loved meeting that challenge! Also Henry Drummond in Inherit The Wind, and, speaking of Jimmy Stewart, I’ve had the honor of playing George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
SP: Back to the current production. Tell us about 33 Variations and why people should see it.
Offner: I see 33 Variations as being the playwright’s way of saying to the audience that they’re not alone. For example, here is this great and powerful legend of classical music brought down to size by an irreversible condition. That story is already well-known; but where he finds support and motivation and inspiration (both internal and external) throughout that condition, throughout the play, is from the same kinds of sources from which we can find all of that, ourselves, to this day. All of the characters in this play live out that humbling discovery—that we are not alone, that we need each other, that all of us are mortal—and that it is through how we befriend or deny that mortality that can determine the quality of life for each of us.
33 Variations, presented by the Station Theatre in Urbana, will run from January 22nd through February 7th. There will be one matinee performance on Sunday, February 1st, at 2 p.m. Otherwise, all shows start at the usual 8 p.m. Of additional note to you classical music aficionados is this tidbit, taken from a Station press release:
“This exquisite play has a strong local connection. As he developed the work, Kaufman (also the writer of the acclaimed play The Laramie Project) established a close consultation with musicologists William Kinderman and Katherine Syer of the UIUC School of Music. In 2007, Kaufman and several members of the play’s cast and crew were in residence at the university to ’workshop’ the play and collaborate further with Kinderman and Syer. Two of the play’s early workshop performances were done here in central Illinois.”
For more information about the play, the cast, and ticket reservations, check out our preview next week or visit the Station website.
Photos from 33 Variations by Thom Schnarre; photos from Pride & Prejudice by Sean O’Connor.