Dianne O’Neill Filer’s long teaching career may be over, but her work in the theater is far from complete.
A native of Australia, she moved to the Capital Region from Greenwich, Conn., in 2004 to teach at Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer. O’Neill Filer retired in 2007 but has kept herself busy serving in several capacities in the local theater community. Her current gig is as director of the Curtain Call production of A.R. Gurney’s “Ancestral Voices,” opening Friday and running through Aug. 11.
“Gurney has this remarkable ability to create a former time with wonderful attention to details,” said O’Neill Filer. “He definitely does take you back to another time and place, and he lets you see the good things and the bad things. He doesn’t sugarcoat the past.”
“Ancestral Voices” had its world premiere in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1999. The story centers on a young man, Eddie, who is looking back on the lives of his parents and one set of grandparents. The five characters make up a wealthy WASP family in Buffalo, often the setting for Gurney’s plays. The story is set from 1935-42 as well as a short segment from the 1960s.
“It’s a story about relationships, and about a young man looking back at his ancestors,” said O’Neill Filer. “It’s a very bittersweet play about turmoil and life, and about the changing mores of our time. It’s funny but it’s mostly very poignant. I don’t know if I would have considered myself a huge Gurney fan, but he’s really won me over with this play.”
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Aug. 11; performance times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $22
MORE INFO: 877-7529, www.curtaincalltheatre.com
Born in 1930, Gurney is one of the more prolific contemporary American playwrights today, some of his better-known works including “Love Letters,” “The Cocktail Hour” and “The Dining Room.”
Like O’Neill Filer, Katherine Ambrosio, who plays the mother in “Ancestral Voices,” has enjoyed getting to know Gurney’s work better.
“I’ve always loved ‘The Dining Room,’ and I really enjoyed doing a staged reading of that work at Theater Voices,” said Ambrosio. “I think we’re going to learn more when we actually perform the play in front of an audience, but it’s so touching and poignant, so beautifully written. He’s won me over, and when you know you’re working with a great playwright you really feel like you’re getting the support you need from the script.”
While Ambrosio played Anne Frank’s mother in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Curtain Call last season, O’Neill Filer will be making her Curtain Call debut. Along with her work in school, including 20 years of directing at the Greenwich Academy and the Brunswick School, both in Greenwich, Conn., O’Neill Filer has more recently directed at the Home Made Theater in Saratoga Springs. She has also acted and served as costume designer with Home Made.
“The people are great at Curtain Call,” said O’Neill Filer. “It’s a very happy workplace.”
Ambrosio is working with O’Neill Filer for the first time, as are the other cast members in the show: Gary Maggio, Paul Dederick, John Noble and Joanne Westervelt.
“I had never worked with her before but what a pleasant surprise,” Ambrosio said of O’Neill Filer. “She’s a very nice ‘Aussie’ lady, and it’s been so enjoyable working with her. It’s a great experience when a cast and a director come together creatively and personally.”
O’Neill Filer said she grew up in a small country town in New South Wales, “right at the edge of the Outback,” and came to the U.S. in 1969 after marrying an American. She has since remarried and currently lives with her second husband in the town of Stillwater, not too far from the Saratoga Battlefield. Her acting career started at age 13 when she played Jean Valjean in “The Bishop’s Candlesticks,” an abridged adaptation of the classic musical, “Les Miserables.”
“I directed and starred in it and played Jean Valjean. Only a 13-year-old could possibly think they could do that,” said O’Neill Filer, laughing at the memory. “But I’ve always loved acting, especially as a teacher. It allows a student the experience of being someone else, someone they would never be, and it allows them the opportunity to get all the teenage angst out of their system in a safe place under adult control.”
Then, according to O’Neill Filer, it was the actor who becomes the teacher.
“Acting is at the cultural center of our world,” she said. “When you consider how much of our time is spent watching actors, it’s amazing. They have this enormous power to enlighten us and hold a mirror up to society and let us see right from wrong and what needs to change. Theater elevates the human spirit in a way nothing else can. Music can do it for some, but in the theater it’s universal. Everyone can enjoy it on some level.”
O’Neil Filer’s first directorial work, outside Doane Stuart, was earlier this season when she directed Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” at Home Made. Saratoga Springs actor and playwright Victor Kahn was a part of that cast, and Kahn has also performed at Curtain Call. When Curtain Call founder and artistic producer Carol Max needed a quick replacement to handle the directing duties of “Ancestral Voices,” Kahn gave O’Neill Filer a hearty endorsement.
“I guess she called around and asked a few people, and Victor told her to give me a call,” said O’Neill Filer. “I knew that they do very good work at Curtain Call because I had seen ‘The Whipping Man’ earlier this year and it was a brilliant, wonderful show.
“I’m very happy she called even though they had already picked the cast. Sometimes, when you don’t get a chance to choose the actors yourself, you never know what you’re getting into. But I can’t imagine being able to find any better actors if I had done it myself.”