After lunch earlier this cloudy, rainy week, Chris Lemmon donned a pair of shades in the elevator.
This is not unusual for celebrity actors, especially those from Los Angeles. Sunglasses help one get down the street unbothered. But Chris Lemmon lives in Connecticut. And although a well-regarded writer and actor, he is — with all due respect — something less than a household name.
But if you take a look at Chris Lemmon's face, you see, with no difficulty whatsoever, a young version of the late, great, Academy Award-winning Hollywood star Jack Lemmon, who was Chris Lemmon's beloved father. Some men wear their parental heritage lightly; Chris Lemmon wears his like a youthful selfie of his old man, who died in 2001 after starring in more than 60 movies, including "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment."
You can see why the younger Lemmon wears the shades. Without them, he'd surely be subject to a barrage of furrowed brows and confused lines like: "Wait. Aren't you? No, you can't be." And that would be even before anyone saw his dead-on impression of his father.
That impression — it might well be more accurate to call it an acting role or an in-the-voice-of personification — is the bedrock of the 59-year-old actor's new solo show, "Jack Lemmon Returns," which he says is a play with music about a father-and-son relationship, not so different from the norm except that the father just happened to like partying in his living room with pals Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Cagney and James Stewart while his young son slept.
"Although I did come out of my room to see what was going on," Lemmon said, dryly. "Of course, this was the norm for me then. It was not until much later that I realized that most people do not live like that."
"Jack Lemmon Returns," which begins preview performances Friday at the Royal George Theatre, is billed as a world premiere, as directed and written by Hershey Felder.
Felder, long known in Chicago for his popular touring solo shows featuring the music of such composers as Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven, has more recently become involved in the development and presentation of several other shows by different solo artists with an appeal for his core demographic. Felder had a solid hit last year at the Royal George with his production of Mona Golabek's "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," which soon will open at the 59E59 Theatres in New York. The Lemmon project is his next endeavor — part of what Felder envisages as a long-term rental of the Royal George main stage, with several small commercial projects, including his own new work, flowing through Chicago in a continuous pipeline of shows in development.
Chris Lemmon, now part of the Felder fold, says this show has some history in the appearances and performances he did in support of his 2008 book about his relationship with his father, "A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father."
"But it was Hershey who encouraged me to tell the story in my father's voice," Lemmon said. "I was reluctant to do that, at first." But Felder and Lemmon went through a writing and workshop process and came up with a more fully theatrical affair. The production at the Royal George will be the first time "Jack Lemmon Returns" has been produced as a complete, staged production.
Lemmon said that it was never his intention to perform some kind of hagiography, even though he loved and greatly admired his father.
The elder Lemmon divorced Chris Lemmon's mother (actress Cynthia Stone) when the younger Lemmon was just 2 years old. "I did not," he said, "feel especially welcome in the second marriage." The show, he says, deals with that situation, as it does his father's admitted alcoholism, which extracted its price on his family life, although Chris Lemmon says he never admired his father more than on the day he vowed never to take another drink. And kept that vow.
All in all, it's clear that "Jack Lemmon Returns" is aimed squarely at his father's many fans, a situation with which Chris Lemmon seems notably comfortable, dismissing the obvious question as to how much he felt like he was in the shadow of his father with the observation that there are many kids in the world who have far bigger crosses to bear than access to one of the most engaging men ever to work in Hollywood.
"I don't have much patience for that nonsense," he said. "When I was a kid, I knew my father was an actor, but I did not know he was a star."
The show deals, Lemmon says, with some of his father's career challenges. "He didn't understand," Chris Lemmon said, "why he was always being pigeon-holed as the south-going guy in a north-going world."
Nonetheless, it's really a personal story — a remembrance, replete with family photos, many of which have not been seen in public before. Lemmon says he plays more than 50 characters, all a part of his father's life, including the boy he once was himself.
"My father was my best friend and a great teacher," the genial Lemmon said. "I suppose you could say the show is my search for catharsis. And if all else fails, look at my face."
"Jack Lemmon Returns" begins previews Friday and opens May 12 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.; $55 at 312-988-9000 theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun