“My busy, wacky, wonderful life”: Parents on stage and off stage, THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Media Theatre)

In an interview with Jennie Eisenhower and Jeff Coon, stars and wacky parents of THE ADDAMS FAMILY at the Media Theatre, the actors share the joys and difficulties of juggling two lead roles in their lives. Their performances, and that of the entire cast, under the direction of director-choreographer Dann Dunn, are so entertaining—we may forget both actors are parents off stage as well.

Music director Christopher Ertelt and his orchestra provide the equally delightful and wacky score for this popular musical. The eerie stage design by Matthew Miller, and the out-of-this-world and in-the-beyond costumes by Xiachen Zhou—especially for Morticia Addams; Lurch, the tallest man for miles, played by Bill Vargus; and, above all, the surreal Grandmama, played to the hilt by Susan Wefel—not only work together powerfully, but create a show that critic after critic considers better than the original New York production.

We wanted to learn more about Mr. and Mr. Addams as the parents on stage, and the realities of their lives as two actors with their own children in the Philadelphia area.

The Addams Family, Susan Wefel, Lauren Cupples, Jeff Coon, Jennie Eisenhower, Bill Vargus, Nicholas Saverine, and JD Triolo
The Addams Family, Susan Wefel, Lauren Cupples, Jeff Coon, Jennie Eisenhower, Bill Vargus, Nicholas Saverine, and JD Triolo

Henrik Eger: What was your life like before you became a parent, and what does your life look like now that you have children?
Jennie Eisenhower: Parenthood has definitely changed my life. I took for granted being able to take a shower in peace. Those days are gone!  Mainly things are more hectic, but also filled with much joy. Chloe helps me see the world with new eyes, which is an amazing thing. And I have never felt love as intense as maternal love. From the minute she was born, my world was completely rearranged. But if I want to take a nap, go to a yoga class, or go do a theatre benefit, I now have to arrange care for Chloe in advance and pay up. So, I am forced to make choices about what I can and can’t do right now. It has been hard in some ways, but also has clarified some things for me—all the excess has fallen away.

Jeff Coon: My personal life is completely different as a parent than it was before I became a dad. I have two kids now. My daughter, Piper, is 7 and my son, Jackson, is 6. As they get older, my personal life becomes increasingly more about their personal lives than my own. Where do they have to be and when? How are they getting there? Am I taking them and/or picking them up? How about school schedules? And Little League? And ballet? And playdates? And birthday parties?. And . . .?. Any parent of first and second graders knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Jeff Coon with children Piper and Jackson.
Jeff Coon with children Piper and Jackson.

HE: That sounds both exciting and exhausting.
Jeff: Yes, it can be tiresome at times, but it’s absolutely worth the effort, because they’re really good kids of whom I’m extremely proud. Their mom, her husband, my partner Joey, and I work very hard but also very well together at keeping their schedules and all of our own on track.

Professionally, since becoming a parent, my life has remained much the same, if not gotten better, but it’s a bittersweet “better.” I’m working more often on roles that are exciting and engaging, and I’m working on creating my own work as well—but all the time I spend working is time that I can’t be with my kids. My weekend is Monday. Theirs is Friday and Saturday, like most of the rest of the world. And I have to miss recitals and little league games because my schedule is what it is. And that’s something that never affected me in this way until I became a dad.

HE: On stage, you represent the delightfully weird Addams Family parents. Tell us more about your roles.
Jennie: I love Morticia [Addams]. She is unapologetically passionate about things. I definitely can relate. I know that to non-theatre people I sometimes come on a little strong as I have trouble censoring myself. Morticia doesn’t worry about that at all. She is fabulous. I love getting to transform into her every day. The wig, the dress, the makeup—it is a very over the top look. My day to day makeup and outfit regime is currently quite perfunctory, so to be fancy at work is a great thing.

Jeff: It’s funny, because I’m just starting rehearsal playing another well-known family father—Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins [at the Walnut Street Theatre]—and I enjoy very much the juxtaposition of these two men. Gomez Addams loves his family. Adores them. Family is the most important thing in his entire life. His devotion to them, specifically to his daughter and wife, is the crux of the conflict within The Addams Family. I love how demonstrative he is with his love for his family. He wears it on his sleeve.

HE: How does the Addams father compare to the father you play in Mary Poppins?
Jeff: Mr. Banks also loves his family, adores them, too, but he’s gotten subsumed by his need to give them “things” and “status” as an emblem of his love. He’s lost sight of the fact that what they really need is his emotional and physical presence.

HE: Where do you reside emotionally and practically as a real-life father?
Jeff: I think that I somehow live in the land between these two men in my real life as a dad. I love them. My kids are my two favorite people in the world, and I’m not shy about saying it. But they need to eat. They need clothes. And, therefore, I need to work.

I don’t think it’s an uncommon struggle for parents who try to find the right balance between wanting to spend time with their children and being dedicated to work for financial reasons, especially for fathers who are traditionally the “providers.” I can relate to both characters, and depending on the day or my state of mind, one is more relatable than the other.

Eisenhower and Coon as Addams Parents,
Eisenhower and Coon as Addams Parents,

HE: In the musical, you are dealing with one teenage daughter and two little boys. Tell us more about your interactions with the kids and any “parental” advice you might have given them before the show started.
Jennie: Actually the two Pugsleys [J.D. Triolo and Andrew Rubin] are the same age—twelve years old, and they are great. They already have theatre experience, so I didn’t need to advise them too much. They know what they are doing, but one night, one of our Pugsleys flubbed a line in our scene, and I covered for him. He came to me afterwards and apologized. I told him there was no need for that. We are doing live theatre and things happen all the time. I hope he’ll cover for me should I go up on a line. We all do it. We’re a team—a family.

Jeff: Well, Lauren [Cupples], who plays Wednesday, is actually in her 20’s and has been a professional actress for a little while, so I get out of her way. [He smiles.] She’s very talented, and I am happy to be her stage dad. I especially enjoy our second act scene, because it’s a quieter moment in a show that is a little raucous most of the time.

HE: How are you dealing with the youngsters on stage?
Jeff: J.D. [Triolo] and Andrew [Rubin] share the role of Pugsley. I have known J.D. for two years as he was one of the kids in The Music Man when I did it at Walnut Street Theatre. What I enjoy most about this experience with him is that Pugsley’s the only kid in the show. I therefore have a much greater ability to interact one on one with J.D. than I did during The Music Man, because there were so many kids in that show. I enjoy talking to him as a fellow actor and also seeing how much he’s matured as a performer and a human being. I only just met Andrew on this production. He’s less experienced than J.D. but very enthusiastic. He is full of questions and his joy in being a part of the process is quite something to behold.

HE: Do you teach your stage sons, perhaps giving them practical acting advice?
Jeff: I haven’t offered any of them any specific advice, but I try to show up on time to rehearsals, prepared, ready to work and with a good attitude. I think that’s as important as anything for kids. I try to treat them kindly and respectfully, as I hope any adult would treat my kids if they were in J.D.’s and Andrew’s shoes.

HE: Having seen how difficult teenagers can be, how prepared are you for your own children to one day act up like the Addams Family kids on stage?
Jeff: I don’t think we’re ever really prepared until it actually happens, are we? I can scarcely imagine my kids as 10 year olds, let alone teenagers, so I’m trying to just enjoy them while they still like me and will occasionally let me kiss and hug them without pushing me away.

Jennie with Chloe
Jennie with Chloe

Jennie: My friend Madi DiStefano, who is an actor-director and mother of a teenager, gave me great advice when I was pregnant and anxious, asking her a million questions. She said, “Listen, you just have to be ready for a baby. That’s all you need to do right now.” She urged me to worry about a toddler when I have a toddler, first grader when I have a first grader, and so on. My main objectives right now are to prevent Chloe from throwing herself off the couch, eating dirt, and falling down our staircase. I have enough to worry about with that.

HE: Tell me what else you would like me to know about your life as a parent on stage and off stage.
Jeff: I love what I do professionally, and I am especially enjoying this portion of my career where I’m moving into the “daddy” roles. But there is no job, no role, no professional experience anywhere at any time that will ever be as fulfilling or as important to me as my role as a father. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be when I grew up.

Jennie: For actors and actresses who are worried they won’t be able to do both—be a parent and an actor—I say it’s doable. Parenting can make you a better artist because of how intensely you experience love, fear, and a slew of other emotions. You just make it work, because both things—parenthood and showbiz—are worth it. I wouldn’t trade my busy, wacky, wonderful life for anything. Though if anyone out there wants to come by and watch Chloe, so I can take a shower, let me know.

HE: Jennie and Jeff: What a joy seeing you on stage, each and every time. What an honor to be allowed into an important part of your life, which is usually off-limits. Many thanks to both of you and your children—on stage and off.  [Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, PA]  September 24-November 2, 2014; mediatheatre.org.

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