Playing the antihero

When actor Carl Schurr takes the stage tonight in Everyman Theatre's production of "All My Sons," perhaps he will dedicate his performance to Cherry Watson.

Cherry — and not even Schurr knows whether Cherry is a he or a she — was young Carl's imaginary friend in the 1940s.

It was Cherry who helped the 4-year-old hang an invisible curtain in the archway leading to the living room of Schurr's home in Port Huron, Mich., creating a proscenium arch. It was Cherry who helped him put on plays for his parents and older sister. This was the era before television, and he had never even seen a staged performance..

"My parents wondered how I even knew what a play was, let alone a proscenium arch," Schurr said while relaxing in front of the set of a gray frame house, circa 1946, that serves as the backdrop for playwright Arthur Miller's postwar drama. "That's a question no one was ever been able to answer."

During the past six decades, the size of Schurr's audience has grown exponentially. He's currently tackling the lead role of Joe Keller in "All My Sons," a play that examines the moral choices made by a family who appear to be living the American Dream.

"All My Sons" was Miller's first big hit, and it begins with Joe's son, Chris, announcing plans to marry his brother Larry's fiancee. Larry was a pilot during World War II, but he has been missing in action for two years.

Everyman Theatre artistic director Vincent Lancisi knew instantly that Schurr should be cast as the play's antihero.

"Joe needs an actor who can re-create an age and time when American ideals were strong, but perhaps a bit naive," Lancisi said.

"Carl instinctively understands this. He's a master painter who comes in and starts by painting broad brush strokes for his character, and then fills in the details with all the tiny brush strokes of real life. I knew he'd be magnificent as Joe."

As Schurr grew up, he began scrutinizing the values of the Joe Kellers of the world, first at college (he earned a bachelor's degree in radio and television from the University of Michigan), and later teaching at the then all-black Tuskegee University near Birmingham, Ala.

But Schurr, who is a director as well as an actor, longed for more production experience, and in 1966 he moved to the District of Columbia. He was a member of Center Stage's ensemble during the early 1970s.

Schurr's longest gig was as co-artistic director of the Totem Pole Playhouse — a venerable summer stock troupe in Fayetteville, Pa. Schurr and his personal and professional partner, Wil Love, ran the company from 1984 to 2008.

"An actor tells a story from his point of view," Schurr said. "He's a tree in the forest. But a director has to be able to see the whole forest."

While Schurr has performed several major roles at Everyman since he and Love were invited to join the ensemble in 2007, Joe Keller is easily his greatest performing challenge to date.

So tonight, his thoughts will go out to the people who helped him get where he is today: his partner, Love, applauding from the audience, his parents and sister, possibly even Cherry Watson. But chances are that the World War II drama also will bring to mind Schurr's elder brother, Bill.

Bill Schurr was a radio operator for the Air Force during the war, though unlike Larry Keller, he came home. Now 88, he currently lives in Florida.

"If Bill can make the trip, I would love for him to come see the show," Carl Schurr said.

If you go

"All My Sons" runs through Dec. 12 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets cost $10-$42. Call 410-752-2208 or go to for show times.

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