Director Leah Cooper was surprised when Richard Cook, artistic director of Park Square Theatre, suggested that she give Steven Dietz’s “Shooting Star” a read. Cooper is best known for staging gnarly, meaty plays, including Tracy Lett’s acidic “August: Osage County.” “Star” is a light romantic comedy.
“Richard said to me, ‘I know that a baby boomer midlife crisis two-hander may not be your bag, but give it a try,’ ” Cooper said. She did, and was pleasantly surprised by Dietz’s script.
“It’s not just well-written, it … takes you into a little bubble where you can answer some questions about fantasies or dreams that you have in your own life,” she said.
That bubble in “Star,” which opens Friday in St. Paul, is time spent in an airport that is all but shut down because of a snowstorm. There, the stranded passengers include Elena Carson and Reed McAllister, onetime lovers in college who went their separate ways. Elena has stayed true to her hippie ideals, and has never married. Reed has become a conservative businessman, with a marriage that’s on the skids. The pair’s reunion is animated by nagging questions about the wisdom of their choices.
The production reunites two of the finest actors working onstage in the Twin Cities — Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen. The two met when both were newbies at the Guthrie Theater.
“Mark and I have history — yes, we do — minus the intimacy part,” said Wingert. “It goes back to 1985, my very first season at the Guthrie when I was the third lady on the balcony in ‘Cyrano.’ Mark was in that season. He was so gorgeous as Pip, the best friend, in ‘Great Expectations.’ I had, not an actual crush, but something for him because he’s so adorable.”
For his part, Benninghofen, who left the stage for advertising and voice-overs before returning a few years ago, said that it’s a treat to be onstage with Wingert.
“We’ve shared the stage before, but we’ve never had this involvement,” he said. “The idea that we have a history, and similar chops, mirrors the play and helps us to get to where these two characters need to be fairly quickly.”
Playwright Dietz, who used to live in the Twin Cities and was an essential member of the Playwrights Center, is a friend of Wingert’s. They ran in the same circles and hung out frequently.
“I know this play well, not just what’s on the page, but what’s between the lines and its music,” Wingert said. “It’s a tender comedy, but it’s also deep, without slapping you or punching you or being assaultive.”
Assaultive, that would be Wingert’s last role. She acted in Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” playing a mother in the transgressive domestic comedy that revolved around a hyper-macho soldier who has returned from war to find that his sister is in the process of becoming his brother.
The trip from “Hir” to “Star” is like “riding a roller coaster,” said Wingert.
“The ideas in ‘Hir’ were very contemporary and messy,” she said. “ ‘Shooting Star’ is a play of reflection and memory. It lets us explore this flirtation with the road not taken.”
Both actors have been married a long time (to their respective spouses). But they understand their characters well, if only because they’ve immersed themselves into so many soul-expanding personas onstage.
When he was young, Benninghofen was often cast as the affable best friend. Now, he gets grittier roles, including the chill-inducing mass murderer in “The Hot House,” which he memorably did for Dark & Stormy Productions over the holidays. And in the movie “The Public Domain,” opening Friday (and reviewed on page E9), he plays a philandering ad executive.
“I like to play troubled characters because they’re more interesting and, as an actor, you’re not just along for the ride,” he said. “You’re reacting to something with some noise in your head.”
Besides, he said, as he gets older, more roles open up for him. “There is a whole raft of angular, dangerous, falcon-like characters out there,” he said. “And it’s fun to dive into these guys with a little more edge.”
He’ll get to do it again soon when he reunites with Wingert on the Guthrie stage. Both are cast in Joe Dowling’s valedictory production of “Juno and the Paycock.” Benninghofen plays Joxer, the affable but slimy best friend of the male lead while Wingert plays nosy neighbor Mrs. Maisie Madigan.
Now, they’re focused on two characters riffling through their recollections.
“Personally, I know a lot of people with great memories of their 20s, but if you’re in your 50s, why would you want to re-live that time?” said Wingert. “We keep moving on.”