Mary Jane Pennington in the Theatre for the Very Young production of The Tranquil Tortoise and the Hoppity Hare

An Interview with A Steady Rain's Sal Viscuso

Sal Viscuson

We had the great privilege of sitting down with actor Sal Viscuso to talk about his role as Denny in A Steady Rain and about his history as an actor.  Sal is making his Alliance debut. He previously performed A Steady Rain at the Guthrie. His credits include TV: Scandal, Law & Order: SVU, Soap (in which his vocationally-challenged character Father Flotsky drew national controversy); Films: the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three & Spaceballs; Stage: Russ in Clybourne Park at Portland Center Stage, LA; Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross; Carr-Gomm in Elephant Man.  

Why this play? What is it about this play that resonates with you?

What resonates with me in the play is that I’m allowed to depict someone who has blinders on…who comes from a very emotional place, like so many cops do, who is not really aware of the consequences of his actions. And somebody has to reveal what’s very much a problem today, and if it’s done artistically, and the person can just reveal the, “Who am I?” of a character, even if he’s despicable, even if he behaves in a way that none of us would want to be associated with, I’ve done my job.

Denny and Joey are childhood friends who grew up together, became cops together, but are very different.

They had something deeply in common. Joey’s policing impacted him differently as a single man than it does on Denny as a family man. Because he loved me when we were kids, he mirrored what I did like a slightly older brother.

Did you and Tom Kelly talk about the history Denny and Joey have together?

We did, we did at times. But we found we didn’t need to. We just intuitively connected, we didn’t over think it. It’s like the late Spencer Tracy said, when asked the secret to his acting, ‘I just learn the lines and show up and try not to bump into the furniture.’ That’s what I try to do.

Denny’s logic makes sense to him.

My character justifies everything that he does. He makes the ultimate sacrifice so that everyone could thrive. His partner, his wife, his kids.

Denny has his own particular code and he lives by it. He says in the play, “I’m full of shit in many respects, but one on one I always keep my word.” And when he violates his word to his wife, he feels the brunt of that and he carries that around with him. And the play reveals that. Without commenting. It just reveals it.

What’s it like playing a character like Denny?

I hope no one confuses me with the character I play. I’ve never hit anyone – especially a kid! The most difficult line for me to say in play is, “I f***in’ spanked him. He’s my kid. You do ‘em no f***in’ favors raisin’ ‘em to be…mama’s boys, believe me.”

It’s very difficult…in the course of the play I talk about how I lose my patience with my wife and kids. I had a very hard time in rehearsal even saying those words, and Jeff [Perry, the director of A Steady Rain] said to me, “Until you really commit to revealing every ounce of who Denny is – who Denny is – not who Sal is – you’re not going to serve the play, the playwright, your audience, and the people that you want to enlighten, perhaps.  Just reveal.

As an opening night gift my wife gave me two books:  a book about the March on Washington and the play before that she gave me a book on the Freedom Fighters. She knows what’s important to me.

The first time I said the line, “I betrayed Connie that night and in a strange way I was glad for the pain…” Jeff said to me, that is the closest and the only point in the play where you confess and get in touch with the pain you’ve caused and you must allow us to see that.”

One of the things that doing the play has done for me is I don’t allow myself to fly off the handle as often, I don’t say, “Well, I’m just emotional, I’m just intense, I’m just Italian…” because I look around and I notice other people are not doing that. So what is it about me that gives myself permission to be out of control. It’s not acceptable. It’s not the way of the world. And I’m noticing the way of the world a lot more because of this play. His way of the world cannot be the way of the world. And there are too many people, not just in dictatorships in Africa, and in Bosnia and in South America and Russia they don’t like their political views…”

How do you think doing this play in Atlanta will be different?

First of all in Atlanta, there are more black people in the audience. And they are often the victims of police violence – they are the victims of the violence that my character perpetrates, purely on the color of their skin.

Denny blames other people for whatever happens to him. He doesn’t take responsibility for anything. Until the end, when he takes the ultimate responsibility.

  What do you hope the audience gets out of this play?

I just hope that the audiences who come to see this sit through the whole play – black and white – and they get through this dramatized version, hopefully  replicating real life that there are better ways of doing this. Denny’s solution is not the solution. Nor is his ultimate solution the solution – you don’t have to resort to that to get things done well.
 
“My cousin, Paulie, was blinded by friendly fire in Vietnam. Eleven years later, the night before my 31st birthday he committed suicide. That same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in the Lorraine Motel, two months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed. These events changed my life.

Bruce Springsteen has a line in that song, I think it’s Badlands, where he says, “Don’t  get caught on the wrong side of that line.” I don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of that line.

I hope the play somehow inspires the audience to help affect change and not just accept things just because they’re told that’s the way it is. That they could be out to dinner with someone who’s treating them to a very expensive meal that they always dreamed of going to but maybe couldn’t afford to go there, and the host is grandstanding or using that as an opportunity to "wink wink" amongst us and get off his chest his closet comments about his view of the world…that in the most awkward moment, they’d find a voice to get up and say, “That’s unacceptable.” Or any other comparable situation where you think, “you know I really wanted to say something, but…” No. You say something. You stop it. You take responsibility. If someone says, “They give us a hand here,” you get up off your couch and you just go.

“Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

How did you become an actor?

When I was 11 ½ in 1960 my mother moved me to California. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad – they had split up – and not only did I not get to say goodbye to my dad, I didn’t get to say goodbye to any of my friends in school.

So as a kid whenever I would talk, I got hit. So I associated talking with being bad. I wasn’t trying to be bad. You see, in the Catholic school where I was brought up, they tried to teach you – tried, with me they never succeeded – something called the Holy Days of Obligation. I never understood why I had to learn them. I didn’t even know what “obligate” meant. So I looked it up in the dictionary. I went to class the next day and I said, “Brother Angelus, I wanted to say something.” And he said, “What do you want, Viscuso?” I was like, 9.  I said, “I looked up obligation. I don’t feel obligated.” And he came over, grabbed me by my shirt, pulled me up to the front of the class and hit me. I didn’t feel obligated to do the Holy Days of Obligation. Kind of ironic, right? And I got hit for it.

Fast forward to Sacramento California. It’s 1961. Brand new jr high. It’s a magnet school. I’m in 8th grade. The teacher calls me up and gives me a poem to read, “In Honor of George Washington’s Birthday.”  It was by an Italian immigrant speaking, sounding like Chico Marx, and with my Brooklyn accent I sounded like Chico Marx.

And she said, “I want you to read it, and on George Washington’s birthday we’re going to have an assembly and you’re going to read it in front of the whole school.” And I got up and I did it in front of 500 people – “When Giorgio was a little kid, a little Americano…” I don’t remember it all now – and they started laughing. And I realized for the first time in my life that talking and making sounds out of my mouth wasn’t a bad thing.

Four years later, I’m in high school. Senior. Year. My best friend Brad Miller told me that if I was in this play, "Our Hearts were Young and Gay," I’d get to kiss Sandy Beyersdorfer, the head cheerleader. I didn’t exist in Sandy Beyersdorfer’s world. I wasn't a football player.  But I got to kiss Sandy Beyersdorfer in the play! I asked the teacher, why did you cast me? And he said, “You’re cute and you’re funny, but you’re also loud.”

So I go on to graduate school. Fall of 1966, UC Davis. I wasn’t particularly good at studying. I got a D in history, I flunked entry-level English - bonehead! - and I flunked geography. They assigned me a therapist, a workshop wehre they taught you to study. I had to retake the English class. The blessing of the English class was that he assigned us three books: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Look Back in Anger, and King Lear. Not only did I pass the class, I learned how to study differently,  brought my grades up in all the classes, but most importantly, it opened a door to my future career.

That next semester, my friend Ginger Drake and I are watching a teleplay, "The Final War of Olly Winter," starring Ivan Dixon in it.  He and Bill Cosby were the only black actors on network TV in the 1960s. [Dixon is best known for his role as “Kinch” on the TV Series Hogan’s Heroes.]

"The Final War of Olly Winter" was about a Vietnam Vet, and at the end of it, through my tears, I turned and send to Ginger, “I want to do this. I was to be an actor.” And she said, there are auditions in the drama department tomorrow. So I said Okay, and I walked in and started doing the lines. And they said, “Who are you?” And before I knew it I was cast in 3 of their 4 plays. I felt like I found my family when I walked in the drama department. I never felt like I belonged anywhere until that moment.  I was 17.

When I did Clybourne Park [at Portland Center Stage in 2013], a patron came up to me afterwards and said, did you realize that the guy who inspired you to be an actor [Ivan Dixon] – was in a Raisin in the Sun, the show on which the play is based?  I didn’t even know it at the time, but Ivan Dixon was in the original cast of "A Raisin in the Sun."  What serendipity.

So that’s how all of this happened. A teacher recognized there was some energy that needed to be harnessed in the 8th grade and then 6 years later in the drama department on the heels of this man’s brilliant performance, being moved to tears, and wanting to do whatever it was that he did that started me crying…that’s the path.  

Tell me about your work with young actors.

I volunteer at a thing called the Unusual Suspects, after the LA Riots, after Rodney King was beaten because he was a black guy, this young white actress started a company based on her desire to reach underserved kids through the arts. I became a teaching mentor at the camp – all black and Hispanic kids in this camp, no white kids. It’s called camp David Gonzales. And ironically it’s in the Santa Monica Mountains, on the other side of the hill was where I used to film M*A*S*H. None of these kids were born when M*A*S*H was on. We taught them how to write, and how to act. The mother of one of the kids came up to me and said, “I’ve never seen my kids this happy since he was 11.”

The play that they wrote was called King Zulu, about a 13th century king from Ghana. I did the paintings for the show, which served as sets.

The experience for me of working with these kids was life changing. And they learned they have options. They’re not just being treated as someone on a video surveillance camera in a 7-11 store. They’re so much more than that.

A friend of mine who is a producer told me that when he went home he burst into tears. That’s how much the humanity of these kids affected them.

It’s introducing an option in their lives. They see me, a kid from Brooklyn, and they knew I was real. The most I can hope for is just to be real.

What does live theater mean to you?

I carry a lot of pain with me. My art is helping me find a place for it. Instead of reacting, I’m learning to act purposefully.

I remember seeing James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee in the fall of 1970 doing "Boesman and Lena" … and I could feel their blood, sweat, pain and their profound sense of loss and hopelessness. But they kept going. Revelations changed my life. That’s live theatre. You experience that and it changes your life.

How did you meet Jeff Perry?

I first saw Jeff, but I didn’t meet him, at the La Jolla Playhouse when Grapes of Wrath was playing. I’ll never forget it because Gregory Peck and his beautiful wife Veronique were sitting right in front of me. And Jeff was in it. He played Noah, the sort of slow mentally challenged younger brother of Tom Joad. Twenty-something years later at the Hollywood YMCA we met and I realized who he was and we connected and started helping each other with auditions, and he said, you know I’m thinking about teaching, and I encouraged him, because he’s from Steppenwolf - he was the co-foudner. About  6 years ago I hadn’t seen him in a while and asked me how I was doing?  He says, “You were hemming and hawing and you wouldn’t make any eye contact with me,” and I remember, he said, “I put my hand on your forearm and I said, I have a class and one of the actresses dropped out why don’t you come and be my guest.”

I showed up and that class became my lifeline. And out of that, the opportunity came around to do Clybourne Park.

When I did Clybourne Park Jeff flew up for my opening and he said, “I’d like to direct you,” and shortly after he found A Steady Rain. That was 2 years ago. I’d do anything for him.

Anything you want to collaborate on – is there a part you would love to do?

The one that terrifies me more than anything. The one role is Willy Loman. Death of a Salesman.

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