‘Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson …’
Adapted film classic, ‘The Graduate,’ opens at Historic Iao Theater
Some stories hang around because, no matter how many years have passed, they still seem real and relevant. On many occasions the original authors of novels like “The Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” based aspects of the stories on their own lives. Maui OnStage opens their 2019-20 season this weekend with one of those tales, Charles Webb’s “The Graduate” at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
Twenty years ago, Dustin Hoffman, the original Benjamin Braddock, was approached by a journalist who suggested that “Fight Club” was to the young men of 1999 what “The Graduate” was to young men in 1967. The analogy is a stretch, but both films addressed the idea of feeling lost and facing an ominous future unless zealous determination is put in motion posthaste.
If you don’t know “The Graduate,” Benjamin, a recent college graduate, is adrift and disillusioned by the plastic and privileged Southern California world of his family and their friends. At first he is seduced into a mindless affair by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, but his viewpoint is transformed after he falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s optimistic, no-nonsense daughter, Elaine.
In Rob Reiner’s 2005 film, “Rumor Has It,” a long-lived suggestion was dramatized that Webb’s novel is based on a Pasadena, Calif. rumor. Webb’s real Mrs. Robinson was patterned on the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Jane Ericson, but Webb, who grew up in Pasadena, asserts that the rest of “The Graduate” is fictional.
In 1998 the American Film Institute listed “The Graduate” as number 7 on their 100 Greatest Comedies list. “The Graduate” is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but perhaps the reason we still find it darkly funny 52 years later is because it might have been true.
After the film rights were secured from Webb for $20,000 (The film would go on to gross over $100 million), Tony Award-winner Mike Nichols, fresh off of “The Odd Couple,” was chosen to direct. The lengthy casting difficulties of “The Graduate” could warrant its own film, as Nichols considered dozens of actors over many months.
Doris Day, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland, in addition to many other legendary Hollywood actresses, were almost Mrs. Robinson until Nichols decided on Anne Bancroft. Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were both offered the role of Benjamin but passed, and even then Governor Ronald Reagan was approached to play his father, Mr. Braddock.
The stage adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2002 with Jason Biggs as Benjamin, Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson and Alicia Silverstone as Elaine.
The Maui OnStage production, directed by Rick Scheideman (“The Miracle Worker,” “A Few Good Men”), stars Elisha Cullins, Marsi Smith and Julia Schwentor in this lover’s triangle.
Scheideman is no stranger to directing iconic works that are perhaps best known as films. I asked what the pluses and minuses are directing the well-known.
“The plus is you’re not trying to convince the audience that the material is good. They come because they’re looking forward to seeing a story that they already enjoy,” he replied. “The challenge is the balancing act of giving them what they want and giving them something new, something they don’t know that they want yet.”
Scheideman chose to direct “The Graduate” because he saw it as a challenge.
“I like the challenge of the familiar but with a twist,” he said. “I wanted to discover how can I make this different and be faithful to the story at the same time.”
Scheideman shared that he first saw “The Graduate” while in college.
“It was a very personal film to me,” he recalled. “It really isn’t just about Ben and Mrs. Robinson. It’s about all of the characters, and they’re all flawed. Nobody comes out smelling like a rose in this one — there are no winners.”
As director, he is emphasizing that idea with the local cast.
“There’s poignancy here in every character, and they all deserve our sympathies. They’re not cartoons. I want it to be funny, but I want people to see real human beings that aren’t trying to be funny; they’re not standups. It would be easy to play this as cardboard characters and play up the laughs,” he expressed. “I would like audiences to see themselves and say, ‘That’s just like me,’ or ‘That’s just like you.’ This show is great fun, but the humor reveals a greater side that’s in all of us.”
It’s because of the authenticity of the characters in “The Graduate” that it remains so popular.
When the entire Robison family becomes aware of the torrid affair, we’re sympathetic to Elaine’s anger, Mrs. Robinson’s sadness and Mr. Robinson’s downfall. Yet we root for Benjamin’s half-baked, and slightly insane plan to win Elaine back — drive hundreds of miles to stalk her, stop one marriage at the altar, marry her himself and then run off together. Somehow, in spite of all the dysfunction and lack of rational thinking, “The Graduate” is not only funny, but it has grown to be thought of as an inspiring love story.
“Good comedy allows us to laugh at things that if we didn’t laugh at we’d cry,” explained Scheideman.
I asked him how Ben and Elaine would have turned out 52 years later.
“I asked the actors that same question, and they all had different ideas,” he said. “I think we all wonder what happened to Ben and Elaine. I honestly don’t know. It’s certainly a set up for a horrible relationship, but maybe they made it work. Maybe they both had enough moxie to make it through.”
Maui OnStage presents the Hawaii premier of “The Graduate” adapted by Terry Johnson, based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, directed by Rick Scheideman. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13 at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets range from $20 to $40. “The Graduate” contains adult themes that may not be appropriate for all audiences. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.
Also This Week
ProArts concludes “Strangers on a Train,” by Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, directed by Tina Kailiponi. This chilling and gripping local production features compelling performances by its entire cast. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Tickets are $26. For more information or to purchase tickets for any ProArts event call 463-6550 or visit www.proartsmaui.com.
Catch comedian Todd Barry in performance in Kihei. Writer, director and actor Todd Barry has appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brian,” “The Sarah Silverman Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Chapelle’s Show,” “Louie” and in several Comedy Central and Netflix standup comedy specials.
Performance is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets visit www.eventbrite.com.