A chance meeting at an art gallery reception led acclaimed actor Harris Yulin to the Southampton Center, now in its inaugural season as the newest arts and cultural destination on the East End.
“I was over at an art opening, visiting Jules Feiffer, and met Paton Miller,” he said of attending the “Power of the Line” exhibit at Mr. Miller’s 4 North Main gallery in Southampton. “Jules and I had been talking about doing a play and Paton said, ‘there’s this new Southampton Center …’”
One thing led to another and Mr. Yulin, an East End stage mainstay—who recently appeared with Mercedes Ruehl, Georgia Warner and Brian Hutchinson in “Tennessee: A Portrait, The Writings of Tennessee Williams,” a prduction he arranged for, at Stony Brook Southampton and directed last year’s “Men’s Lives” revival at Bay Street Theatre and “The Glass Menagerie” at Guild Hall—learned that even more of his friends were connected to the efforts at building an arts program at the center, one of whom is architect Siamak Samii, the Chair of the Southampton Village Planning Commission and a member of the Southampton Center Founders Committee.
“Siamak is one of the people organizing the center. So I thought, ‘Oh that sounds interesting,” Mr. Yulin recalled about a conversation he then had with Mr. Samii about putting on a performance at the Center. “We finally came down to the idea ‘Is there something could you do for a night?’ And I said, ‘yes.’”
The actor, who lives in Bridgehampton with his wife, Kristen Lowman, immediately thought of staging “Chere Maitre,” which he and Broadway veteran Kathy Chalfant had previously performed twice before. The play by Peter Eyre is a dramatization of the letters between writers Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, platonic friends, who though decades apart in age, corresponded frequently.
Mr. Yulin—who has hundreds of stage, television and film roles to his credit and will next star in HBO’s upcoming “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”—will be performing as Flaubert and Ms. Chalfant—best known for her Broadway turns in “Angels in America” and “M. Butterfly”—will play Ms. Sand during a free reading at the Southampton Center on Sunday, August 11. The pair previously performed the piece at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library close to 10 years ago and then again in conjunction with Guild Hall at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton in 2008.
“Once I happened upon these letters, I was just amazed by them. Whoa, these are just the best,” he said of his fascination with Flaubert’s and Sand’s relationship and their enthusiastic 13-year correspondence, adding that he was so transfixed by them that he reached out 25 years ago to writer Francis Steegmuller, a Flaubert scholar and the translator of the letters. “My response to them, when I read them, was so visceral.”
Mr. Yulin, who said that he “used to haunt used bookstores” when he was a kid, has always had a special place in his heart for Flaubert’s works. But it was the correspondence that drew his interest in Sand—a woman, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant, who wrote under the male pseudonym.
“She emerged, through her letters, as such a complete woman. Such a complete human being with so much to grab a hold of. Her personhood was so palpable, as was his,” he said. “I don’t know any epistolary relationships that have been richer or more revelatory than these.”
He continued that the two “were not lovers, it was a friendship,” which made their letters all the more entrancing to him. “It was this amazing friendship of these two deeply human people.”
Sinking his teeth into the meaty role has been a pleasure for Mr. Yulin, almost as much as watching his co-star tackle the intriguing Sand, he said.
“Flaubert is a very interesting figure, not only for his accomplishments but for his dedication and commitment of keeping the artist out of the work. Sand was the opposite,” he said. “To hear Kathy do her is just so great. For me, it’s a treat to stand there for an hour and a half.”
Supporting the local arts scene is a must for the veteran actor. He encourages like-minded East Enders to do the same.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on the East End,” he said. “These people who are putting this together … I think it’s terrific that this building is going to be used for something. I think we can stand another venue, evenings of theater and dance. There are great possibilities.”
“Chere Maitre,” starring Harris Yulin and Kathy Chalfant, will stage for free at the Southampton Center, at 25 Jobs Lane, on Sunday, August 11, at 8 p.m. Seating is first-come, first-served. For additional information, visit southamptoncenter.org.