Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern are a couple in real life, and play one in this show. But in life, they don’t spend their days in trash cans.
In the Arden Theatre Company’s current production of Endgame, only four actors are on stage. Two of them, Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern of Elkins Park, play the roles of husband and wife — the same role they have in real life.
Married for 25 years, both have extensive theater credits, and have played husband and wife before. In fact, that’s one reason director Edward Sobel cast them in Endgame. “He felt there would be some basic understanding between the two of us about what it’s like to live together,” Boykin said.
But they have never lived the way they do in the world of Endgame, which was written by Nobel prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett. During their entire time on stage, the two are confined to oversize trash cans. The reason is never clear, which is just one example of Beckett’s trademark surreal style.
The play explores a co-dependent relationship between two men. One of them, Hamm, is the son of Nell and Nag, who are played by Boykin and Kern. For unexplained reasons, Hamm cannot stand. His companion, Clov, cannot sit down. And all four are confined to a single room.
Hamm sits in a chair, while Clov paces and strides around the room. And Nell and Nag, in trash cans, are visible only from the waist up. Their speaking roles are small, and their gestures are limited because of their confinement.
Boykin admitted that on first reading the script, her reaction was, “Oh gosh, I hope our director will help us negotiate this because I’m not sure I know how to handle it.”
Indeed, it’s not easy even to stay in position on the stage. “We’re on our knees on the floor as if our legs have been cut off,” Kern said. (The reason they are legless is also unexplained.) “I move as if I only have stumps when I change my body position from one direction to another.”
Even with foam rubber padding on the floor, it’s tough on the knees, and it took its toll. “It created stress on my back, and I adapted by relaxing to relieve the tension,” he explained.
But this theater trouper isn’t complaining. “It’s been an interesting experience,” he said. “But not a problem.”
Nor does Boykin have any problem with looking unkempt on stage. She wears a gray wig with disheveled hair.
That’s not all. “We’re covered in dirt and ash, and our teeth are kind of rotten,” Boykin said.
Even though their speaking parts are spare, there are dramatic challenges. “Although the play is dark, Beckett also wrote with humor,” said Boykin. “And we have to make both aspects work — the dark circumstances and the humor. We have to laugh at our predicament.”
In fact, her character, Nell, has the most famous line in the play. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Because of all the challenges of this existential drama, Boykin is grateful to play her role as wife alongside an actor whose work she respects and admires — her husband.
“I have a huge amount of respect for him both as an actor, director and teacher,” she said of Kern. “The opportunity to work with him was a piece of great good luck.”
In turn, he’s a major fan of his wife’s work. “She’s passionate about her preparation,” he said. “And she brings a complexity and a presence to her roles. “
They’ve had other experiences being in the same show. In one recent production of the new play development group called Play Penn, she portrayed a wife whose husband had died. “But he was on the stage as a memory, and in one scene, we even danced together on the stage,” Boykin said. “There was something magical about doing that together.”
Now both are again enjoying this chance to appear together on the same stage. Kern, 64, is making his Arden debut with this role. “The role is small but the challenge is to bring the writing to life,” he said. “And working with such talented actors makes the work fun.”
For Boykin, 63, this is her fourth Arden role and her first time in a Beckett play. “I’ve been challenged by the material,” she said. “And I’m impressed with the great skill of the director and the other actors. So it’s been a wonderful experience.” ••
IF YOU GO:
Endgame at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2ndSt. in Old City, continues through March 10. For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org