Jarvis Stop: Playwright Rory Leahy Tilts at Windmills and Wins in The Irrelevant Adventures of Jarvis McFadden

August 7, 2010

Jarvis McFadden was born in Rory Leahy’s early college years. Leahy’s high-school friend Tom Beach had a character come to him in a flash—an eccentric, depressed 19-year-old who decides to become a tough private detective in a decidedly crime-free suburb.

Before ceding the project to Leahy to concentrate on other works, “Tom wrote an outline that contained much of the basics of the story: the widowed mom, the siblings, the friendship with the homeless man, the doughnut shop robbery. I just fell in love with the concept and saw a lot of potential in it,” says Leahy. That love would last a decade.

Performance at an American Demigods fundraiser. From left: AD board member Dave Wilhelm, PDP member Sean Wade, a lovely woman of mystery, and Rory Leahy.

Plays and Playing

Like so many actors, Leahy made his debut in a Christmas pageant. The pageant “made me want to do my own by organizing all the neighborhood kids. I promoted myself from shepherd to archangel.” When asked about his first writing efforts, Leahy half-jokes, “Star Wars fan fiction, maybe?” and mentions his grade-school poetry, which was acclaimed by his teachers but “actually awful. It showed off my advanced vocabulary in completely unrhythmic fashion.”

An early creative influence was Leahy’s grandfather, who wrote satiric stories and songs. “He died when I was nine, but definitely left his mark in terms of warping my mind. And my childhood best friend, Anna, did the same: we created a lot of theatre together in the neighborhood park. Jarvis is all about that sensibility.”

At 17, Leahy wrote the satire Love Story, directed by his high-school friend Marc Heiden. The collaboration continues to this day: Heiden wrote Monks in Trouble in college and directed Leahy in it; Leahy directed the Monks remount as the first official production of the American Demigods. Such collaboration is a key aspect of Leahy’s career: friends turn into collaborators, artists into friends.

I still think of him whenever I see a bag of doughnuts.”

In his time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Leahy worked extensively with the student theatre company the Penny Dreadful Players (PDP), writing, acting, and producing, employing ensemble casts who, after entering PDP through a “Rory play,” found themselves wrapped up in the company for the remainder of their college years.

The Penny Dreadful Players' cast of the original Jarvis. Photo courtesy Rebecca Nelson Phillips.

Ruth Claus Laird, who portrayed love interest (and doughnut thief) Michelle in PDP’s Jarvis, says:

“I can’t possibly think of my college theatre years and not think of Rory. Almost a decade later, I still think of him whenever I see a bag of doughnuts. It doesn’t matter that he only cast me instead of my roommate because I was shorter than her—he didn’t want Michelle to tower over him. I was still honored that he took a chance on a poor freshman with braces.”

Former PDP artistic director Tom Schorsch explains the essence of working with Rory:

“Like all writer-producers of storefront theater, Rory wears way too many hats, gets in over his head, and lives on the brink of disaster. But his uncommon ability to surround himself with quality people always carries the day. Of all the rewards of working with Rory over the last 12 years, the lasting personal relationships have mattered the most. My band One of the Girls might not be what it is today if I hadn’t met Sean Sullivan [through a Rory show].”

Jarvis Grows Up

The script for the 2001 PDP staging of Jarvis was more farcical and surreal than Leahy’s 2010 revision for the American Demigods, the company of which Leahy is founder and artistic director. The bully villains are no longer henchmen for a secret evil mad scientist; rather, Jack Sharkey’s Nordlund and James Stanton’s Stahl have the depth and realism of overprivileged teens with too much time on their hands and no outlet for their hormone-driven aggressions. Jarvis’s best friend Lloyd is more richly drawn and intense than in the 2001 production, suiting the energies of actor David Wilhelm. Jarvis and Lloyd’s best-bud chemistry is informed by Leahy and Wilhelm’s real-life close friendship and artistic partnership—Wilhelm is a Demigods board member and Jarvis coproducer.

A triple-threat like Leahy, actor-writer David DeVries directed the production. “The great thing about David is that he really got the play right away, and he absolutely understands where the funny is,” says Leahy. The production benefits from being drawn from a cast of all ages, rather than the college-actor pool of PDP. “When you have an older actor like Dan Cooney (Edward Tanner), who’s been doing this for decades, you naturally get a kind of presence and gravitas that no college student can touch,” Leahy says.

Rory Leahy as Jarvis McFadden in the American Demigods' production.

The new production also reaps the benefits of being staged in the world’ best improv city. Leahy remarks, “[Cast members] Katie Keenan, James Stanton, and Rudy Volt are all Chicago-trained improvisers, and all very funny. They created characters that are very different from what I might have anticipated—in a good way.” Director DeVries is also an improviser; he brings to the production skills learned at Second City and iO.

The PDP production keeps a place in Leahy’s heart. “I will always be terribly fond of the original cast. Ruth Claus (Michelle), Sean Wade (Lloyd), Meg Principe (Vicki), and Navin Prasad (Edward) still pop into my head sometimes when I think of the characters they created.”

The Future Adventures of Rory Leahy

The Irrelevant Adventures of Jarvis McFadden is about growing up—both for the title character and the man who brings him to life. Jarvis muses on Saint Paul’s mandate to put childish things away but comes to reject the idea, realizing that the test of maturity is not “how tough, and cynical and serious you can become, but … how much of the best part of your childhood self you can hold on to.”

With Jarvis, Leahy holds on, realizing the decade-long dream of staging in Chicago a play inspired and aided by his childhood friends, in a love of theatre that started when he was just a kid in a park. But he also moves on, acknowledging that he is not the 19-year-old he portrays. “This is probably my last chance to play him, but Jarvis will live in my head forever.”

What’s next for the American Demigods now that Leahy has staged his labor of love? The company will continue to focus on original works, among them Reina Hardy and Matthew Board’s comedic musical about a science-fiction convention. And Leahy’s love of collaboration will live on, bringing in new writers, directors, and actors with a 24-hour play festival.

Leahy also plans to continue acting, with a long list of dream roles and a vision of aging into Henry Higgins. “A lot of actors think bad guys are more fun, but I always want to be the righteous hero,” says Leahy, echoing his quixotic Jarvis.

Story by Samantha Raue


One comment

  1. […] JARVIS STOP: PLAYWRIGHT RORY LEAHY TILTS AT WINDMILLS AND WINS IN THE IRRELEVANT ADVENTURES OF JARVIS MCFADDEN Got a great guest-blog you'd like to submit? Email us at obic@tribune.com for consideration, we'd love to hear what you have to say! Advertisement: ord=Math.random()*10000000000000000;url_script=window.location.href;document.write(''); […]

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