The Graduate’ Landing Onstage

For many people, Anne Bancroft is Mrs. Robinson.  Actress Christine De Lisle knows that only too well. “It is a bit daunting. Everybody identifies Mrs. Robinson with her,” she said.  Yet De Lisle said she put her own stamp on the part in the Theater Project’s production of “The Graduate,” running through May 27 at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield.  “I’m bringing to the character what I know, what I feel,” the New York actress said.  “Now I’m having a good time with it.”  De Lisle faced another challenge when taking the role after casting director friends in New York recommended her to director Zoya Kachadurian, with whom they had been working on a project. “My name came up and they told her I would be the perfect Mrs. Robinson,” she said. But, she said she told them, “I don’t do stage.”  She has spent her career working in film and on television; she is in her 50s now and hasn’t acted onstage since high school.  “Everybody said I’d really enjoy it,” she said. And after she got over the fear of stage fright and of dropping her lines, she left her nerves behind.  “There are many ways to play it,” she said. “We’re playing it with feelings … The show is hilarious. You have the counterpoint between the young boy and the seasoned woman. He plays the nervousness so well,” she said, referring to Steve Petit, who plays her character’s prey, young Benjamin Braddock  “Steve’s comedic timing is impeccable. He plays it charming, he plays it scared, and he knows just when to take control.”  The play is a screen-to-stage adaptation by British dramatist and director Terry Johnson, based on the 1967 movie. It opened in 2000 and ran in London, with Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson, and then on Broadway. First came the novel, written in 1965 by Charles Webb. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the screenplay that followed two years later.

The play features the same Simon and Garfunkel music that has become part of the film’s mystique. The story goes like this: Young Benjamin Braddock, recently graduated from college, is now home under the watchful eyes of his parents, who expect great things from him. Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, seduces him and they have an affair. Things get even more complicated when he falls in love with her daughter, Elaine.

“The characters are much more fleshed out than in the movie,” De Lisle said. “It explains why she is an alcoholic. She’s bored to tears with her husband and doesn’t have a great relationship with her daughter.”  She said she loved the movie. “It was such a coming-of-age story. She’s a predator and he takes her up on it.”  When Turner played the part on stage, she made headlines for appearing naked on stage.  “I don’t do that,” De Lisle said. “You can get the message across that she’s seducing this young man in what she wears.”  Ted Hebert, president and owner of Teddy Bear Pools and Spas in Chicopee, plays Mr. Braddock. Like De Lisle, he is testing new waters in the play. A longtime supporter of the Majestic, he sought a bit part in the show, having never acted. Instead, producing director Danny Eaton said he was just right for the part of Ben’s father and gave him the role.  “It’s been quite intimidating, but I’m starting to feel comfortable,” he said.  Also like De Lisle, he loved the movie.  “It was really on the edge at that time,” he said.  Director Kachadurian had suggested that the cast not watch the movie, to avoid being overly influenced.  “But I knew it by heart,” Hebert said. “Most people want it (the play) to be similar to the movie, but he did a good job,” he said, referring to adapter Johnson.  The Majestic production employs two levels to accommodate the many set changes. Amy Davis designed the sets, Dan Rist designed the lights, and the sound designer is Jonathan Wyman.