Dr. Ross Fletcher isn't just the chief of staff at D.C.'s Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He's also an off-Broadway star.
He's currently appearing in GATZ, Elevator Repair Service's groundbreaking theatrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, now playing at New York's Public Theater. Over the course of seven-odd hours, including two intermissions and a dinner break, thirteen actors present the 1925 novel in its entirety.
On the stage, Dr. Fletcher plays the father of the title character: i.e., the mysterious tycoon, Jay Gatsby, a.k.a. Jim Gatz.
And off the stage, Dr. Fletcher is the real-life father of the actor who portrays the title character: downtown New York theater regular Jim Fletcher.
For seven years, Dr. Fletcher has commuted from Washington, D.C., to appear in GATZ. The first-time actor says he was offered the role because "they were looking for someone that looked like my son's father, and I fit."
Jim Fletcher says he likes to think his father is following in his footsteps.
"I mean, I've seen him perform all my life," says the younger Fletcher. "I used to work for him at the VA hospital when I was a kid. I would run the slides for his talks. So I have seen him many times, and it is a beautiful performance capability that he has."
And it's a beautiful scheduling capability that he has, too! As Dr. Fletcher explains, he boards the train for New York City just as GATZ is beginning.
"This is a long play," he says, "So by the time I get to New York, it's still just intermission. It's halfway through the play, and then I can rest for another hour or so before I come on, which is in the last quarter of the play. The problem then [is] how do I get back by the next morning? Our play ends after 11 [p.m.], and the last train out is at 11. I can't catch that, so I often have to wait until the 3 [a.m.] train and go into the hospital at that time."
Despite the monster commute, Dr. Fletcher has never missed a performance in seven years; nor has he ever been late for work.
Jim Fletcher gets one scene with his father in the show, although as he points out, Gatsby/Gatz has been murdered by that point.
"I'm actually dead on stage while my father is acting, and so I never get to see him," Jim explains. "But I do get to hear him and even feel him as he comes very close. He has a line, 'Where have they got Jimmy?' and then he comes around and inspects me closely. I do my best to play absolutely dead. I know he's a physician so he's looking for all the vital signs of life, and I'm trying to cut them all off."
Overall, Jim says, "Acting with my dad is wonderful. With my eyes shut on the couch, often at that point in the show, I'm trying to stay awake. But when he starts talking, it's very soothing and it brings me back. It's so primal for me, and if I'm going to fall asleep, that's the part where it happens. Not out of lack of interest, but of deep comfort."
In terms of how this shared acting experience has affected the Fletcher father-son relationship, Dr. Fletcher says it makes him proud.
"[Jim] actually once told my wife, 'Dad used to take me to his work, and now I take him to my work.' So the role is distinctly different and wonderful," says the elder Fletcher. "What he does on stage is truly remarkable. He has a prodigious memory for words, but also can express them in a very solid, emotional way. He is a very genuine person, and people really love him, and I obviously do as well."
GATZ runs at The Public Theater through May 13.
[Music: "What'll I Do" by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra from No. 1 Chart Toppers of the 1920s Original Recordings Vol. 1]
Photos: Father-Son Acting Team Commit to the Stage