Six Points (under its original name, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company) presented its first season of plays in 1995-96. It was just a couple of years later, in 1998, that Uncle Philip’s Coat was produced in New York City. Such a play didn’t go unnoticed by impresarios like Barbara Brooks, Six Points’ producing artistic director, since it was selected as a prestigious Herbert Berghof Memorial Play that year.
Six Points likes to present plays that are fairly new, but, in 1999, Six Points itself was new and maybe not too anxious to take chances. Perhaps Six Points didn’t think that a short play for a solo actor on stage was enough to fill its auditorium in 1999. The theater has produced a number of one-person shows over the years, including a successful presentation of Deborah Yarchun’s play, A Pickle.
(Editor’s note: A Pickle is a biographical work about the author of this article.)
Uncle Philip’s Coat will premiere Saturday, Oct. 22, on Six Points Theater’s stage at the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul.
Playwright Matty Selman, brought up on Staten Island, is not a stranger to the Twin Cities. His first visit here was to write an industrial script for the legendary restaurant Charlie’s Café Exceptionale in 1982. While the endeavor failed to keep Charlie’s alive, Selman can never forget the experience. “I had a great meal,” he recalled.
Selman is known primarily as a lyricist. He’s written lyrics and music for dozens of shows. His collaborators have names that are familiar to most Broadway fans, e.g., Galt MacDermot (Hair) and John Pielmeier (Agnes of God).
Selman grew up in a Jewish family, but it was not his parents being impressed with his Bar Mitzva speech that gave him his start. A middle school drama coach first recognized Selman’s theatrical talents and encouraged him to attend the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. The three-hour round trip to school and back gave him ample time to start refining his writing skills for lyrics and scripts.
Did he get the inspiration for Uncle Philip’s Coat on the Staten Island ferry? No, but life at home on Staten Island was part of his inspiration. Selman admitted that Uncle Philip’s Coat is highly autobiographical. Uncle Phil was a real relative from his mother’s side of the family.
“Uncle Phil was a larger-than-life character in my childhood; he was like a king. He’d come over with this huge coat and pulled out all kinds of fun things for us kids and for our parents. He’d lay them out on the coffee table for people to choose what they might want. To repay, he’d do small tasks around the house, unasked. My mom really loved him and instilled the feeling of love and compassion in us by the way she dealt with him. He had a difficult background in Ukraine, suffering from pogroms. He really had no money, and my parents helped support him in small ways.”
Uncle Phil is an over-the-top personality, but it’s Matty who appears as a character in the show as he learns the history of Uncle Philip’s coat. Six Points is fortunate that one of the Twin Cities’ most celebrated actors was available and willing to take on the daunting task of memorizing the entire script for a show that runs over an hour.
J.C. Cutler has been a pillar of the Twin Cities theater community for more than 30 years. It’s the rare theater patron who has not seen him in one of his 50 productions at the Guthrie Theater. He’s performed at all of the best venues in town: History Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Jungle Theater and Children’s Theatre Company, not to mention Six Points, too.
Director Craig Johnson must feel that Cutler can do the part. He steered Twin Cities’ favorite Sally Wingert through the role of Doris in A Pickle last summer; he has faith in his directorial skills and his actors. He’s been in the Twin Cities theater scene for decades, providing his creative skills at many of the same theaters Cutler has performed at.
So, did you have an Uncle Phil in your family? It’s the rare Jewish family that didn’t have one in a past generation.
At Uncle Philip’s Coat, you’ll laugh; you’ll cry. You’ll identify and enjoy.
Uncle Philip’s Coat runs Oct. 22 through Nov. 13 at Six Points Theater, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For information and ticket reservations, go to: sixpointstheater.org or call 651-647-4315.
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