The Pasadena Playhouse has a long tradition of featuring some of America’s greatest actors, having featured pre-stardom Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman in the 1950s and the powerhouse combo of Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett in “Fences” in 2006.
But the new play “God Looked Away” might bring the Playhouse its biggest star yet, with Oscar- and Emmy-winning legend Al Pacino teaming up with fellow Emmy winner Judith Light in the story of famed playwright Tennessee Williams battling his demons prior to the Chicago opening of his final play.
The production opens Wednesday and runs through March 19.
Also in the cast is Pasadena-based actor Miles Gaston Villanueva, who’s experiencing the thrill of a lifetime by playing in some highly charged scenes with Pacino in his role as Baby, Williams’ lover during the intense days the story depicts. Speaking with the Pasadena Weekly by phone during a rehearsal break, Villanueva notes how pleasantly surprised he has been with the veteran actors’ generous work ethic.
“I could spend hours talking about them and the generosity they share with me and everyone in our group,” says Villanueva. “Al’s process is so inspiring and detailed, and his spontaneity in the work makes it fresh and new and thrilling daily.”
Villanueva’s character Baby is a complex one, based on the show’s playwright Dotson Rader, who was Williams’ real-life “partner, friend, lover and confidant for about 14 years of his life.” The play takes place in a room at the famed Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago as Williams is preparing to mount his play “A House Is Not Meant to Stand” during the week of his 70th birthday.
“The crux of it is seeing this artist later in life, and it’s a difficult thing because Baby is on one track in his life, which you see from the first scene,” says Villanueva. “He’s changing and evolving, and so is Tennessee, but not in the healthiest ways.
“The audience will see that and they have to ask if they empathize with Baby, because there’s a whole world of this young lover that throws a wrench into things,” Villanueva continues. ”I’m sure Al has similar experiences rooted in his theater career, and you see Al Pacino in Tennessee, and you see Tennessee in Al.”
A Visalia native, Villanueva recalls “always being the entertainer of the family,” but his life’s defining moment came when he took a college class called Oral Interpretation of Literature. While he started the class looking at it as just an option for his general education requirements, his professor was also a director in the school’s theater department and praised his performance of a Shakespeare monologue.
Villanueva soon changed his major to theater, and while working in regional theater after graduating, many people suggested that he give acting in Los Angeles a try. He decided to take the plunge, a move made easier by the fact that his brother already lived in Pasadena.
“My brother was finishing his doctorate at USC and I crashed at his place until I booked an agent and manager,” says Villanueva. “He eventually moved out and I inherited his place and now I’m doing theater down the street with Al and Judith. I love Pasadena more and more the more I’m there. It’s hard to think of moving to Hollywood or anywhere else in LA, because it’s a nice escape.” n
“God Looked Away” runs Wednesday through Mar. 19 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $125 general, and $179 to $199. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.com.