Ties That (Financially) Bind :: Ken Cheeseman on Max Posner's Family Comedy 'The Treasurer'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 6, 2020

Ken Cheeseman belongs to Boston theater's solid core of longtime, prolific professionals — more prolific for the fact that in addition to his stage work, Cheeseman has numerous film and television credits, not to mention a longtime post as an Artist in Residence at Emerson College. He's also a teacher at the World Economic Forum and the Obama Foundation at Columbia university — work that EDGE was eager to hear more about.

But the center of the recent interview EDGE enjoyed with Cheeseman was his current role as The Son in the Lyric Stage Company's production of Max Posner's spiky dark comedy "The Treasurer."

Posner's writing revels in imagery and rhythm. Indeed, to see "The Treasurer" on the page is to see the lyrical style in which Posner writes; the play is composed as if in blank verse.

In "The Treasurer," a character identified as The Son speaks directly to the audience, narrating the history of a family financial crisis in full detonation — a fiscal crash caused by his mother Ida, (played in this production by Cheryl McMahon). Ida's finances have long been precarious but with the death of her second husband everything tips into chaos. The Son has two older brothers, who look to him to chip in equally to pay off Ida's staggering debt, and to get her installed in a living situation that's equal to her expectations — a fantastically expensive proposition in and of itself, not counting the money it will take to provide Ida with the necessities of life for herself and her dog.

Having accepted the responsibility of being "the treasurer" for this small company of offspring that has coalesced around Ida, The Son juggles his filial obligations with his own seething resentments. When he was young, Ida left the family, pursuing a new relationship with another man — the man who became her second husband. That action opened a rift between mother and son that no amount of cash can fill in or paper over... so why, exactly, is The Son siphoning away his own retirement to cushion Ida's crash landing? The thing is, he doesn't know himself why he's doing it, but as he relates his dilemmas to the audience, The Son explores the essential question of whether it's even possible to untangle the complexities of life's closest and most emotionally (and, sometimes, financially) fraught relationships.

EDGE: I've seen you in many productions around Boston, and you've had numerous TV and film roles, but I've got to ask you about something else on your CV — what is it that you teach for the World Economic Forum? And for the Obama Foundation at Columbia University?

Ken Cheeseman: Yeah, that's my latest work, which is absolutely fantastic! Paula Langton [Cheeseman's wife and another stalwart of the Boston stage — ed.] and I have a close association with a voice teacher named Kristen Linklater, who was many year ago part of Shakespeare and Company and then was head of acting at Emerson for a short time, and then head of acting at Columbia University in New York. Now she's built an international voice center in Scotland, where we also go over to work. One of the things that she's been doing has been working with a broader international population of people doing voice and theater work, so we got invited many years ago to do work with the World Economic Forum down in New York and we've gone over to Switzerland to do it over there, too. It's working with people primarily who are heads of NGOs and non-profits all over the world. Often, it's for their own presentation skills, but also for their own use of theater in their work. Often they're working with refugees, people who have been victims of violence or sexual abuse — all these different things that happen in the world that are horrible, these are the people that deal with them. So then it got expanded The inaugural year of the Obama Foundation was two years ago, and so we were invited in that first year to work with that group doing similar work.

What we do is, we go in and we do — Kristen or another Linklater voice teacher does the voice work, a guy from USC in California, Brent Blair, does theater work, and I do a combination of improvisation and narrative work with them.

EDGE: What's narrative work?

Ken Cheeseman: I work with them on pulling narratives form their own life and the lives of people around them, and how to assemble, them, and use them as part of their presentation — as their way of telling what their work is — or also just sort of to pull the stories out the people they're working with so they can hear what's going on.

EDGE: That is amazing work!

Ken Cheeseman: It's fabulous, and the people come from — this last time, from Myanmar, from Kenya, Uganda — all over the world; they are amazing people. They blow my mind. I get to go work with them! It's one of the best gigs I've ever had in my life. It's just incredible.

EDGE: Let me ask you about your role in Lyric Stage Company's production of "The Treasurer." You play The Son — he has a name; his brothers call him Jacob, but he's identified in the script as The Son. How did you come to be cast in that role?

Ken Cheeseman: The director, Rebecca Bradshaw, who knows me from Huntington but, prior to that, was a student at Emerson — I had her in classes. So, she's known me for a while.

You know the play: [My character is] a sixty-something year old guy who rides his bike to work every day, which is something that I'm known for. I've ridden my bike to work every day since I was 15 years of age, so that part of the role I didn't need to do too much work on. That was one aspect of it. And, I don't know if Rebecca knew this or not, but up until about a month ago I had a mother in assisted living who got moved into a nursing home and died just a week before we started rehearsal. [There were] all sorts of odd parallels to this experience. There was something that seemed natural to cast me in this, maybe.

EDGE: So it's maybe a karmic sort of thing. And that's actually something the play talks about; not just the logical cause and effect sort of consequences of life choices, but also the spiritual costs of what we do and how we behave. The Son keeps saying, "I'm going to Hell. I don't love my mother. I'm going to Hell for it." He has a conviction around a karmic justice he seems to expect.

Ken Cheeseman: Absolutely — that's pretty much the exploration I'm making.

EDGE: It's not politically correct to say things like "Children are a burden and I'm not going to have any," and similarly it's not really kosher to come out and say "Aging parents are a burden." But that's something that many people are experiencing, and maybe it's something that needs to be said aloud so we can discuss it. Is Max Posner breaking taboos with this play?

Ken Cheeseman: Oh, I would say he is. I think how we deal with aging, how we deal with relationships and parents... I do think we set up a lot of cultural norms that are fixed in ways that are not always useful. I think he's attacking those. Max Posner's still pretty young; he wrote the play not that long ago. I think he grabbed these issues really, really well, from my perspective. And he was really writing it from his own father's relationship with his mother, but I think he did it beautifully for somebody my age. And I think he captures some terrific stuff for the mother, as well. He's a very skilled writer, and he's got his finger on the pulse of a thing that I think a lot of people go through.

EDGE: No kidding... this is not an unusual situation right now.

Ken Cheeseman: It's not at all. I think where the play differs from me and my mother is I had a mother that I absolute loved and adored and had a fantastic relationship with - and in this play, The Son claims to not have that relationship, and there's all the evidence that he didn't. The Son says at a certain point that he is going to a special section of Hell that's reserved for the sons who don't love enough, and I think that everybody, no matter how great their relationship is with somebody, is often left feeling like they didn't love enough. That's a pretty powerful and accurate thing that I think Max picked up on. It just always feels like you could never do enough.

EDGE: That is certainly a form of Hell that we can carry around even in this life.

Ken Cheeseman: Yeah. That's what it feels like to say this stuff.

EDGE: But there is a karmic effect going on, too, insofar as the mother, Ida, abandoned The Son when he was young. The Son is carrying resentments into his adult life, and throughout his whole life, and that is probably fairly universal, as well, when it coms to people and their parents.

Ken Cheeseman: It's funny, because we've delved into the play and Cheryl McMahon [who plays Ida] often finds herself defending The Son in conversation, and I often find myself defending the mother and her choices. Having had a mother of that generation, you know, for a lot of women who have been locked in the home with kids their whole lives while their husbands were having careers... my guess is that Ida went to college, was educated, but then suddenly was expected to only raise these boys. And then, two of them were off in college, and the third was thirteen, and she fell in love with another man who was exciting and doing exciting things, and she wanted to be part of that.

Later in the play The Son gets on an airplane with a young woman whose mother is doing a play, "The Glass Menagerie," directed her husband; this is her third husband; and The Son says, "Whoa, how's that going?" And the girl goes, "Hey, she's happy. She's having a good time. I'm happy for her!" And it's like wait a minute — how come she's not finding all kinds of resentment in that? I don't mean to indict the character I'm playing, but — I dunno — look at that era in time for women. I think a lot them probably struggled with how did they break out of that mold. And that's where I think Max does a great job, because he doesn't paint Ida as a total bad girl in this, and I don't think that The Son is the total bad boy. Nobody is right or wrong here.

EDGE: Speaking of Cheryl McMahon, what's it like having her as your mom on stage?

Ken Cheeseman: Very funny, because she's played my wife in the past, and she could play my sister so much more easily. I'm dying for them to color her hair or whatever they're gonna do. But most of [our scenes together are] done on phone conversations; we only have one actual scene where I "see" her, and that's towards the end where she's quite frail. Cheryl's wonderful, and a sweetheart, and very dear, and it challenges me to be so angry with her, which is great. There should be an obstacle to that anger.

EDGE: What do you think this play has to say about what people of different generations owe each other - children to parents, or parents to children?

Ken Cheeseman: I think there are definitely indictments of our cultural and political systems and paradigms. We live in a country where the care of the elderly is either something that absolutely wipes out everybody's bank account, or they are put into nursing homes that may be less than satisfying places to be. That's the kindest way to say it.

That's unthinkable. I was thinking today about the whole coronavirus thing and how we can maybe indict China for maybe being to slow to act, but all those people suffering from coronavirus that are being treated in China are, it's my understanding, being treated at government expense. Whereas, in this country, if we had an epidemic like that, there would be a huge number of people who could be made destitute by that health issue. And so the whole idea that aging — something that we know is going to happen to pretty much every human being, unless they die young — [that's going to happen] and we have nothing in place as a society to really care for those people, so to me that's some of the indictment that we've done.

And there are all kinds of other issues that come up in the play that are like that. I don't know in terms of owing the next generation... I come from a family that, you know, I wasn't "owed" a college education, I wasn't "owed" anything, and I don't resent anybody for it. I think it's actually not a bad thing. I think our culture is messed up in that our kids become destitute because they can't afford college, but I don't think parents should be indicted for that.

EDGE: It used to be the case that we'd have three generations living under the same roof, and now what we prize above that is personal latitude, personal mobility, personal prosperity — which is a desirable thing, I think, but have we sacrificed something for that?

Ken Cheeseman: Oh, I think we have, very much so. And I think the play has picked up on that. I mean, there are three brothers, and nobody ever offers to take Ida in. And, I don't know, she probably would drive everybody nuts to have her living with them, so whether that would be the healthiest thing to do anyway...

EDGE: That's right. I didn't even pick up on that! They don't invite her to live with one of them, they just argue among themselves over who's going to pay her bills.

Ken Cheeseman: Right. She's $80,000 in the hold, and they end up shelling out $250,00 up front to put her into assisted living, and $2,500 per month [on top of that], and it's like... Hmmm, guys, you could have been better with the finances. The brothers don't deal with it in the best way, in some ways, because they just want to bury the problem.

EDGE: Literally!

Ken Cheeseman: Yeah: "I want her to die." I say it. "I want her to die."

EDGE: "The Treasurer" has some hard edges, but it's also a very funny play.

Ken Cheeseman: Oh, yeah, it's a riot! The human condition is absurd and funny. You get that from Sam Beckett and everybody else. And you know what's funny? There are hints of Beckett in this. You look at he script, and the way [Posner] writes it out on the page — it's really interesting. It looks like a poem.

The other night we were working on the end of the play and I thought, "Oh my god, something's resonating for me." [I realized it was] Alan Ginsberg's "Kaddish" — it's terrific. There's a touch of Leonard Cohen to "The Treasurer," and there's a little touch of Sam Beckett... and Beckett, you know, when he wrote "Endgame," he was dealing with his aging mother.

I do think Max was influenced by Ginsberg's poetry. It's really less like a big, long monologue than a big poem. He's doing wonderful things with rhythms of speech. Discovering these things as we go along is fun. The other day we were in rehearsal saying how much we all loved rehearsing, because in rehearsal you can really have fun with it. The challenge is to continue to have that fun when the audience is there — to continue to discover that stuff as you do it, and to allow the rhythms that I think Max Posner has put in it.

EDGE: You seem so busy, you much have many projects on the horizon after this.

Ken Cheeseman: The next project is back to New York at the end of April to work the Obama Foundation, then following that another Columbia gig, but this time for the World Economics Forum in May. Then, off to Scotland to work at the international voice center and teach some workshops there. So, a string of teaching workshops one after the other. There's the possibility — and I can't talk about it yet — of a play, possibly out in the Berkshires. And I've been an Artist in Residence at Emerson College for, I think, about 15 years, and this year I'm not renewing the contract so I can continue to do more of this work in New York and internationally.

EDGE: That's jumping off the old diving board!

Ken Cheeseman: Yeah. It's good to do that. It's funny... I took the artist in residency thing when the whole ART thing was shifting, and I thought, "Oh, it's not going to be a company that much longer, so I think I'm going to look for something full time, teaching." I was going to New York and going out of town to do theater, so Paula and I looked at a six-year span of our lives and I had been gone for three and a half of it, and I said, "Oh my god, I don't want to do that again." So, very fortunately, Emerson had an opening that I was able to go into. I thought, "I'll do it for a couple of years," and I loved it — and I still love it. It's just that I still would like to be able to get back to New York and do some work there again and do this international teaching. It's a way of getting me the freedom to do that.

"The Treasurer" runs Feb. 21 — March 22 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.lyricstage.com/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.