Making Gatsby great

Theatre Lawrence production the perfect challenge for director

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Laura Williams, portraying Daisy Buchanan, and Garrett Lawson, who portrays Jay Gatsby in Theatre Lawrence’s upcoming production of “The Great Gatsby,” run through a scene during a dress rehearsal Tuesday at Theatre Lawrence, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive. The show opens Friday and runs through April 27.

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Cast members of Theatre Lawrence's "The Great Gatsby"

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Jake Smith, center, who portrays Nick Carraway in Theatre Lawrence's upcoming production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, "The Great Gatsby," runs through a scene during a dress rehearsal Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at Theatre Lawrence, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive.

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Jay Gatsby, played by Garrett Lawson, shows Daisy Buchanan, played by Laura Williams, a scrapbook he kept about her while they were apart during a dress rehearsal of Theatre Lawrence's upcoming production "The Great Gatsby," Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at Theatre Lawrence.

Jack Wright loves a challenge.

“I like plays that challenge me as a director and that challenge the audience,” says Wright, a retired professor of theater at Kansas University.

Wright retired two years ago, but he couldn’t stay away from directing for long.

“One of the first things I thought when I was watching shows here in the audience was how much fun it might be to work in this space,” he says of Theatre Lawrence’s new facility.

His love of challenges and interest in the new theatre led him to helm Theatre Lawrence’s new production of Simon Levy’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” which opens Friday.

“The idea of Gatsby was intriguing to me,” he says. “I always ask myself, ‘will it be a good experience for me’ and ‘will it help me be better in the future?’”

If you go

“The Great Gatsby” opens Friday at Theatre Lawrence and runs Saturday and Sunday, and April 17, 18, 19, 25, 26 and 27. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sundays, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 843-7469 or online at theatrelawrence.com.

The answer to both questions was yes.

“I like this script a lot,” he says. “It follows the novel pretty well.”

Based on the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, “The Great Gatsby” tells the story a Jazz Age millionaire and the young man who is drawn to him. It has a key ingredient Wright is always searching for.

“It’s a very challenging piece,” Wright says. “The concept is a sort of dreamscape. The scenes are very short. There are nine scenes in each act. It’s very episodic. Like ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams, it’s a memory piece.”

It wasn’t just the challenges of the structure that drew Wright to this play, though. The opportunity to work with an American classic was compelling.

“I grew up reading Fitzgerald novels,” he says. “They’re the kinds of novels you go back to later in life. You re-read them years later and really enjoy them.

“And, of course, the time period is wonderful. It’s the Roaring ’20s. You have all the excess of the Jazz Age.”

Of course, that can lead to other challenges. Fitzgerald’s novel tells a story of excess. It’s a sweeping piece that can be difficult to put onstage.

“How do you stage the three deaths?” Wright asks. “You’ve got a suicide, a murder and a car accident. How do you put that onstage?”

His answer was a sort of minimalist approach, what he calls, “simple choices.”

“Rather than build a whole mansion, I just asked for a staircase,” he says. “In another scene, we’ve got an armoire. They are icons of wealth. We use singular pieces and sounds, and we’re doing some projections to suggest action and place. Hopefully, they manifest themselves as moving experiences for the audience. I find simple choices are often the best. Tell the story without distractions.”

Wright credits his co-creators in helping to bring one of the great classics of 20th-century literature to life onstage. Longtime Theatre Lawrence contributor Barb Wasson choreographed the dance numbers, and KU film professor Chuck Berg wrote original music for the production.

“He really knows the music and knows the period,” Wright says. “Chuck’s music adds a flavor (to the production) that would not be here otherwise.”

But whether the piece is bombastic or understated, lavish or subtle, it still has to resonate with audiences to be successful. That’s the real challenge he’s always pursuing.

“No matter what story you tell,” Wright says, “you have to tell it well.”

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