James DeVita: Seeing is believing

Actor first among equals in Arthur Miller play

Five years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about the actor James DeVita without ever seeing him perform.

I’d read a brief story in the New York Times about the Pearl Theatre Company moving into a new space on West 42nd Street in Manhattan.

It noted that DeVita—a longtime fixture in American Players Theatre productions in Spring Green—would be bringing a one-man show called “In Acting Shakespeare” to the Pearl’s new theater.

I reached out to DeVita, and the actor met me on Monroe Street for a cup of coffee and to chat about the journey from Spring Green to New York City, which in fact was a homecoming for DeVita. He grew up on Long Island.

That morning Jim was friendly as could be, humorous at his own expense, yet clearly passionate about his art.

I’d interviewed his wife, Brenda DeVita—today artistic director at APT—a few years earlier, when Brenda was starring in Madison native Mary Sweeney’s film-directing debut, “Baraboo,” which was shot around Madison.

The DeVitas life together in Spring Green seemed enviable, although at one point I mentioned to Jim that there was doubtless more money to be made elsewhere. He paused for a moment, in which I felt he might be thinking he’d misjudged me.

Then he smiled. “I don’t want for anything,” he said.

After I wrote about DeVita, I got a note from Stanley Kutler, the eminent presidential historian, who for years had been trying to mount a one-actor play about Richard Nixon.

Stanley, who died in April 2015, wanted me to make an email introduction to DeVita, which I did. I don’t know if they ever discussed the Nixon play, but I hope so. I would have loved to have been in the room.

DeVita, meanwhile, wrote a well-received mystery novel and continued to soar at APT, though I still never managed to see him on stage.

This past spring, my wife and I got October tickets to the APT production of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” with DeVita in the lead.

Our performance was Oct. 8, a Sunday afternoon in the indoor, 200-seat Touchstone Theatre.

The show was sold out, and we spotted numerous Madison friends—including jazz musician Ben Sidran and his wife, Judy—as people milled around prior to the opening curtain.

It’s a great gift to have APT in our backyard. But a reminder that live theater is a difficult business came earlier this year when the Pearl Theatre Company in New York—where DeVita took his one-man show in 2013—closed after 33 years of operation.

From the usher at “A View From the Bridge,” whom my wife knew, we learned we were seated directly next to Jim DeVita’s mother.

A gracious woman who moved to Spring Green from New York two years ago, she said this was going to be her fourth time seeing her son in the Miller play. She had a front-row ticket but traded it for the seat next to us in the back. She feared being a distraction for her son.

While we waited for the curtain, I remembered DeVita telling me he’d first arrived in Spring Green in 1995. He and Brenda were living in Chicago when Jim was offered the lead in APT’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

DeVita had figured himself for a life on Atlantic fishing boats until a college theater program on Long Island turned his head. He began slipping into the city to see plays, one of which, a one-actor show starring Ian McKellen, handed DeVita the key to Shakespeare.

“Before I saw him,” Jim told me, “I thought you needed a Ph.D. to understand Shakespeare. It made me feel dumb. This guy made it accessible and fun.”

It was a learning process, and likely still is. In rehearsal for his first APT play, DeVita was playing Romeo too dark. Finally the director took Jim aside: “Romeo hasn’t read the play. He doesn’t know he’s in a tragedy.”

Twenty-plus years on, DeVita is at the peak of his powers. No surprise, his work in “A View From the Bridge” was a revelation. Miller’s play, with immigration among its themes, still resonates. The small cast was brilliant across the board, but DeVita was first among equals.

I’m not a theater critic, but Terry Teachout is, and this summer in the Wall Street Journal he wrote that APT’s production of “View” was one of the two best Miller revivals he’d ever seen.

“It is Mr. DeVita who catapults it into the stratosphere,” Teachout wrote. “Had Robert DeNiro chosen to be a classical stage actor instead of a movie star, he might well have given a performance as a good as this one.”

Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin saw "View From the Bridge,” too, and was “left to marvel at the range of emotion (DeVita is) able to harness.”

What’s left to say? Bravo.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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