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Jewish Journal

Spectator

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 16, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Sean Penn (center), with parents Eileen Ryan and Leo Penn.Photo by Randy Berez.
Back row, left to right: Melissa Fitzgerald, James Gandolfini,Robin Lange and Laura Jane Salvata. Seated, Eileen Ryan and Leo Penn.Photo by Randy Berez.


Call it "A Family Affair."

Actors Leo Penn and Eileen Ryan are husband and wife and the starsof Graham Reid's "Remembrance" at the Odyssey Theatre. And their son,Sean, the movie star and director, has put up much of the money tobring them together onstage for the first time in 40 years.

In "Remembrance," Penn and Ryan play Bert and Theresa,sexagenarians who meet and fall in love in, of all places, thecemetery. The setting is Belfast, Northern Ireland, and each has losta son to The Troubles. The problem is that Bert is Protestant, aformer soldier and the father of a racist Ulster policeman. Theresais Catholic, with two bigoted daughters and an IRA terrorist for ason-in-law.

The actors say they were drawn to the play, in part, because theycan identify with the family conflict. They had met and fell in loveon the Broadway stage, when Penn replaced Jason Robards in "TheIceman Cometh" in the late 1950s. Ryan was already portraying Cora,"the lead tart," which, she quips, was ironic because herIrish-Catholic mother believed acting was "one step removed frombeing a whore." Nor did the elder Ryan immediately approve of herdaughter's new Jewish paramour.

She did not appreciate that Leo Penn was the grandson andgreat-grandson of rabbis and the son of Russian and Lithuanianimmigrants who fled pogroms. (The family surname, Piñon, was"Americanized" at Ellis Island. He grew up near his father's Jewishbakery on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights and spoke his first wordsonstage in Yiddish.) There was another strike against him: He wasblacklisted for testifying on behalf of the Hollywood Ten in the1950s. She "had to get drunk to come to the wedding," but theceremony went on, as planned, with Robards as best man.

Penn went on to become a successful television director by the1970s, and Ryan gave up her flourishing film career to stay home withthe children.

In the same woodsy, rambling Malibu ranch house where they raisedtheir three sons, the couple engage a visitor. Leo, 76, is slight ofstature, with the same smallish, piercing blue eyes and gruff,distracted manner of his middle son, Sean. Ryan, 70, wearing agirlish, flowered dress and demonstrating a wicked wit, points outthe portraits she has painted of Sean and her other actor son, Chris,as well as posters featuring her rock-musician son, Michael. Postersfrom Sean's films, such as "Bad Boys," appear here and there on thewalls.

Sean, now 37, has had that Hollywood bad-boy reputation, but hisparents insist that he was a taciturn and shy, if intense, teen-ager.He was a jock and a surfer who wouldn't venture near the high schooldrama department, although he did make Super-8 films withneighborhood pal Emilio Estevez. When a school talent show changedSean's mind, Leo recommended he study with the legendary Peggy Feury,his old acquaintance from the Actors Studio in New York.

By the mid-1980s, Sean's fiercely intense performances had madehim a movie star; critics were calling him his generation's foremostscreen exponent of method acting. His parents don't like that term,but they admit that Sean often went far to immerse himself in a role.Ryan says that she once chided him for "making himself ugly" withfalse teeth and makeup. Her son retaliated in kind: He disguisedhimself, chatted with his mother for a while, and when she did notrecognize him, he gleefully declared that he had made his point.

On camera, Sean Penn has often portrayed sleazeballs and hotheads;behind the scenes, life seemed to imitate art. Penn brawled, drank,chain-smoked and developed a reputation for punching outphotographers, especially those who pestered his then-wife, Madonna.He hung out with Charles Bukowski, the poet of booze, and spent amonth in jail. Vanity Fair suggested that his rage stemmed fromfeelings of inauthenticity, in some measure related to his relativelyprivileged childhood.

Penn and Ryan indignantly burst out laughing at the mention ofthis. "It's bull----," Leo says, with a snort. Ask about thepaparazzi punching, and they insist that their son was nevercomfortable with his role as a "movie star." They say the presshounded him and goaded him. Ryan, for her part, was almost knockeddown by photographers "who would have killed me to get to him."Today, Sean is happily married, a family man and "a wonderful, loyalson," she says. "Just look at what he's doing for us with this play."

"Remembrance" is not the first time Sean Penn has been there forhis parents. In 1988, he helped bring his mother back to acting byurging her to audition for his film, "At Close Range." He knew thatthe director wanted to cast a plain, homespun-type for the role, sohe advised her to arrive for the audition wearing schlumpy clothesand no makeup. When he saw her sitting in the hall before thereading, he whispered, "Great! You look like s--t!" she says.

Sean went on to cast Ryan in two movies he directed, "The IndianRunner" and "The Crossing Guard."

And when his parents came to him with "Remembrance," theactor-director sprang into action. He had always wanted to see hisparents perform together, and, through his contacts, he promptlyhooked them up with the actresses who owned the rights to the play.He cried at the reading and agreed to serve as executive producer,with his production company, Clyde is Hungry Films, in associationwith the Helicon Theatre Company. Sean's first such venture in thetheater came despite his being harried with performances in the films"She's So Lovely," "The Game" and "U-Turn."

Sean also engaged Sinead O'Connor to write the Irish-themed musicfor the play in collaboration with "She's So Lovely" composer JosephVitarelli. "All three of our sons had tears in their eyes on openingnight," Ryan says. "They were our parents that evening."

"Remembrance" has earned some mixed reviews and some good ones,and the actors say many of the viewers happen to be Jewish. At aquestion-and-answer session after the play last week, some equatedthe ethnic strife of "Remembrance" to the Israeli-Palestinianconflict.

Perhaps, the actors muse, the popularity stems from the fact thatso many elderly Jews frequent the theater -- and there are so fewDecember romances for their perusal, after all.

"'Remembrance' is the flip side of 'Romeo and Juliet,'" Leo Pennsays.

"A geriatric 'Romeo and Juliet,'" Ryan quips.

For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.

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