In Edward Albee's dark comedy The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, which will make its Louisiana premiere this weekend at Southern Rep, William Ragsdale plays Martin, a man to be envied. He has a brilliant career and a wife with whom he's remained joyously in love for more than 20 years. Billy, their teenage son, describes Martin and his wife Stevie as smart, funny, fair-minded, Democrats -- in other words, perfect. Which makes the transformation of their family romance into something resembling a bizarre form of Greek tragedy all the more strange, unsettling and wrenchingly sad. Speaking of his shattered image of his father, Billy says that while he was idolizing his parents, "One of them has been down in the cellar, digging a pit so deep, and so huge, we'll all fall in." The line is more painful because the only moment Martin's face is warmed by a smile in the second act is during a tender scene with his son.
Albee, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes (1967's A Delicate Balance, 1975's Seascape, 1994's Three Tall Women), won four prestigious best-play honors for 2002's The Goat: the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.
The tormented Martin seems somewhat against type for Ragsdale, who out of character exhibits the easy, affable charm one would expect in an actor who's logged a successful career in film, television and stage. Past credits include a stint on Broadway in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues, the 1985 cult horror flick Fright Night, and the title role in the '80s TV series Herman's Head. The Goat, Ragsdale says, is "very different than Bunk Bed Brothers, I can tell you that," referring to his well-received comic turn in 2003 at Le Chat Noir. During the run of that show, he saw Southern Rep artistic director Ryan Rilette acting in The Mercy Seat at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and the two struck up an acquaintance. Rilette gave him a call this past spring about The Goat. "First and foremost we try to cast local actors," Rilette says. "And then I remembered William is also a local, that he owns a house here, and I got really excited."
It's no accident that Martin isn't typical casting for Ragsdale. "William is an immensely likable person," Rilette says. He continues that in the role of Martin, "you want someone the audience will side with. And it's almost impossible not to like William." For his part Ragsdale jokes about tackling the role: "Of course I regret it. It's hugely difficult. Far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be." He describes the rehearsal process for what he considers the most challenging role of his career as something "like being in family therapy for five hours a day, everyday, when you're the one who is responsible for everything that's wrong."
That career began in his hometown of El Dorado, Ark., which enjoyed a vibrant community theater. Ragsdale's parents took him to The Wizard of Oz. "There were very few munchkins where I grew up, so they used local kids in the show," he recalls. When he saw the performance, "It was like a secret curtain had been lifted -- you mean I could get to wear a costume and be onstage and play and sing?" He didn't consider acting as a career choice until his parents encouraged him to pursue it seriously. "They put me on a plane to California," he says. "And after a while, they didn't have to send me any more checks, so they feel like it worked out pretty well. They knew me better than I knew myself at that point."
His residence in New Orleans seems similarly both serendipitous and inevitable. Ragsdale came here regularly on family trips while growing up. His parents honeymooned at the Hotel Monteleone, and he and his wife, Andrea, were wed roughly five years ago at the House of Broel by Madame Broel herself. Several years ago, the couple was visiting Andrea's family in Alabama and was literally about to board a train to New York for the announcement of the fall television lineups. That's when Ragsdale got news from ABC that saved him the trip; his show had been canceled.
"Well, what do you want to do now?" he remembers saying to his wife. They rented a car and drove to New Orleans, where they did what most people do here -- ate, drank, and generally enjoyed themselves. They decided to buy a place in the French Quarter, and they've spent about four months a year here ever since -- the rest of the time spent mostly in L.A. "I'm trying to be a native," Ragsdale says. "I like to think I was born in Arkansas by mistake." Regarding the local scene, he observes, "Because mass culture really does have only a small toe-hold here, it seems like theater and the performing arts could really take off. ... The individual reigns supreme."
- For part-time New Orleanian William Ragsdale, performing in Edward Albee's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? is "like being in family therapy for five hours a day, everyday, when you're the one who is responsible for everything that's wrong."