Mike Hartman brings the 'Plainsong' Trilogy full circle


Mike Hartman: Benediction has made history for the DCPA as the Theatre Company completes the first trilogy in its 36 years. And veteran actor Mike Hartman has been front and center as all three plays have brought the Colorado plains and its rural residents to vivid life over the past seven years.

In Eric Schmiedl’s Plainsong and Eventide, based on the novels of the late Kent Haruf, Hartman played lovable old Raymond McPheron, the rancher who experiences first love in his 70s. In Benediction, Hartman plays Dad Lewis, a dying hardware store owner who is estranged from his adult son.

What appeals most to the actor about these two disparate men Haruf has created, he said, is that they are, in his words, “earth-bound.”

“Their feet are just so well-planted,” Hartman said. “They are so dependable and so unyielding in their principles. If you are honest to what Kent has written, you really can’t make too many mistakes.”

Hartman comes from a rural farming background in Ohio, where both sets of grandparents were small-town farmers. “So I feel I know these people,” he said of the residents of fictional Holt, “and their simplicity toward life.”

Hartman came to the DCPA in 1992 and has since created some of the most indelible characters to ever walk its stages: A pistol-packing political cowboy. A surly old bigot. An aging hippie draft-dodger. He is married to actor Lauren Klein, his co-star in both the Theatre Company’s Eventide and last year’s Death of a Salesman.

Mike Hartman QuoteWhile Plainsong celebrated the resilience of the mutating American family and Eventide is a sweet celebration of late-in-life love, Benediction, closing March 1, brings greater stakes to the stage. And they don’t get any bigger than a man facing his last chance to make things right with his family and friends.

John Moore: What does it mean to you to be able to finish what you started with the Plainsong Trilogy?

Mike Hartman: These three projects have been terrific vehicles, I’ve been so excited just to be a part of it. I think so much of Kent Haruf and Eric Schmiedl and Kent Thompson for making these plays happen. 

John Moore: Is it exciting for you as an actor that this new character, Dad Lewis, seems to have at least one more evident character flaw for you to play off than perhaps Raymond had?

Mike Hartman: You are right, but I also think it’s come at a point in Dad’s life where he has many regrets for some of his actions. He wants to try to make some changes. In a conversation with his own daughter, he says, “I didn’t make time.” And the real regret he has with his son and his views on the kid being a homosexual, well, he can’t do anything about that, because he doesn’t have the opportunity.

John Moore: Why do you think this trilogy, a throwback to old-fashioned storytelling, has been so popular with this Theatre Company’s audiences at a time when theatres are trying so hard to engage a younger demographic?

Mike Hartman: I think the first reason is that it’s homegrown. It’s a Colorado story about Colorado people. I think as much as Denver wants to shake that cowtown image that people want to project of it, they still have those cattle come down 17th Avenue every January to promote the National Western Stock Show. I think Kent Haruf was so much in touch with Colorado’s roots. And the second reason is that all three of these plays are such simple, marvelous, touching stories. Even when I read Eric Schmiedl’s sixth draft of Benediction, I caught myself near tears five or six times just reading it.

John Moore: What does that tell us about this endless pursuit of new kinds of stimulation in live theatre? Are we trying too hard?

Mike Hartman: I only know that good storytelling works. I think when theatre tries to compete too much with film and television, it doesn’t always work for me. It’s like going to a ballgame. I’m a big baseball fan. When I go, I sit there and I watch the game. I keep score. It’s a slow game. I get annoyed when “The Wave” happens, or when the scoreboard urges me to cheer, or when they have constant noise happening. But that’s what young people expect. Maybe the theatre requires more of your attention. But people don’t feel comfortable just sitting and listening and watching anymore.

John Moore: So how is the end of this trilogy affecting you?

Mike Hartman: It’s hitting me at a point in my life where there is an awareness that I am probably in my last 25 years of my existence, if I am lucky, and that can be a frightening thing. I just hope when my time comes that I go through it with as much grace as Dad Lewis does. That I think not only of myself but about how to make things easier for the people I care about. When was the last time the house was painted? To me, that’s what this story is all about.

Benediction: Ticket information
Performances run through March 1
Space Theatre
Performances daily
Call 303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.denvercenter.org

Joyce Cohen and Mike Hartman in 'Benediction.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.

Mike Hartman, Cathy Haruf and Lauren Klein at the Kent Haruf celebration on Feb. 7. Photo by John Moore.

Mike Hartman with Joyce Cohen in ‘Benediction,’ above. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. Hartman with Cathy Haruf and Hartman’s wife, Lauren Klein, at the Kent Haruf celebration on Feb. 7. Photo by John Moore.

Our previous coverage of Benediction:

Kent Haruf: The complete final interview
For two inaugural DCPA company actors, you can come home again
Photos from Opening Night
Video, photos: DCPA celebrates life of Colorado novelist Kent Haruf
‘Benediction’ opens as a celebration of ‘The Precious Ordinary’
Video: Your first look at Benediction
Doris Duke Foundation awards $125,000 for Benediction
Bittersweet opening for ‘Benediction’ rehearsals
Kent Haruf, author of ‘Plainsong’ Trilogy, dies at age 71
Kent Thompson on the 2014-15 season, play by play
2014 Colorado New Play Summit will complete ‘Plainsong’ trilogy
Video: ‘Benediction’ reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit

Meet the cast videos:
Meet Joyce Cohen
Meet James Newcomb
Meet Mike Hartman
Meet Nance Williamson
Meet Leslie O’Carroll
Meet Adrian Egolf