Award-winning actor David Strathairn stars in ‘Off By One’ at People’s Light

Off By One

When a mistaken text message connects seemingly random strangers to the life and death of a legendary poet in Joseph Dougherty’s ‘Off By One’, the new drama brings mysterious notions of laughter and coincidence to the historic People’s Light Theater.

It also serves as a homecoming for beloved actor David Strathairn.

For many, Strathairn is an Oscar-nominated actor whose take on newsman Edward R. Murrow was the centerpiece of director George Clooney’s ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’. Strathairn also acted as J. Robert Oppenheimer in the BBC’s ‘The Trials of Oppenheimer.’ Along with working for Stephen Spielberg in ‘Lincoln’, Strathairn has been one of the cinema world’s most recognizable faces for more than four decades.

Yet, anyone who loves theater knows Strathairn’s work, especially at People’s Light, where he has been in productions of ‘The Cherry Orchard’, ‘Nathan the Wise’ and ‘Sally’s Gone, She Left Her Name.’ Strathairn has also taken part in workshop production of ‘Edgardo or White Fire’, and for Producing Artistic Director Zak Berkman in ‘Beauty on The Vine’.

Talking about the joys of stage acting, Strathairn says that he loves the rehearsal process “probably” more than the actual show itself, as he gets to stretch his wings, “and try out, as many as three or four different ways,” of finding a character’s voice, “and its clarion tones. I often stub my toes in the rehearsal process as there are so many different doors to walk through – which is the right one? Which is the door that I’ll finally choose?”

People's Light

Pointing to the writing of Joseph Dougherty for ‘Off by One’, the actor states that the play could support many different takes on it and his lead character, the fictional dead poet Douglas Roote.

“That’s the sign of a great piece of literature,” says Strathairn. “That many people could bring their interpretations to it, and they’re all supported by Joe’s text.”

Strathairn is most enamored of the rehearsal process at People’s Light, director Abigail Adams and the “deep dive” that the cast has been going through.

“We’re evoking questions about things that may not be apparent in the text, and on the page,” says the actor who additionally credits Adams’ “generous, but incisive… probing” approach to the staging of ‘Off By One’.

“We’re exploring why certain things are said, and why certain things are not said,” states Strathairn. “Here, it is like going into a full library with books about the same thing. You can choose any book you want, and it will support you. I find that very challenging. You have to come up with something. It can’t remain these ameboid thing that keeps changing shape. You have to lock into something that everyone is confident with… that is the truth of the play.”

Dougherty jokes that, sitting next to such an astute director and watching the action unfold on stage with its actors, he was afraid that everyone “would realize that my story was made out of cardboard.” Instead, the twists of fates and coincidences that make up ‘Off By One’ come down to whether or not coincidences exist and what do we make of them when they happen.

“It’s about memory, regret, loss, language and how we shape our own realities,” says Dougherty.

“The energy of this play build-and-builds-and-builds upon itself,” adds Strathairn. “Yet, the poetry of the language has such a soothing effect.”

Going back to the subject of People’s Light, Strathairn praises his fellow ‘Off By One’ actors Claire Inie-Richards, Aubie Merrylees and Mary Elizabeth Scallen with going toe-to-toe on the journey of exploration. 

Strathairn got to People’s Light in the mid-1990s with ‘Sally’s Gone, She Left Her Name’ after hearing about the theater through friends in the business who had performed or staged shows there.

“There was a reading of ‘Sally’s Gone’ in New York, Abby Adams was there, and the introduction to everything that was People’s Light was something that felt really familiar, whether or not you ever actually experienced it before,” says the actor. “Then, when I learned about People’s Light and that the life here is so much more than just putting on plays — this place and how long it has survived is extraordinary. All of the things that I have come to love started with a simple introduction from a friend who had worked there. ZaK Berkman, who runs People’s Light now, I met him when he was 12. It’s just one of these things where a million electrons merged, and decided to tap me on the shoulder. I really love this place.”

‘Off By One’ will be on stage at People’s Light from June 12 to July 7. For tickets and information, visit