Behind the Curtain at The Purple Rose: Actor David Bendena finds the right key in Jeff Daniels’ Roadsigns

David Bendena, sitting down upstairs in a conference room behind the iconic Purple Rose stage just before the opening of Jeff Daniels’ “Roadsigns,” doesn’t appear to be tired in the least. It’s quite the opposite, really. He is energized and excited and in great spirits.

And while he does have the advantage of youth by his side, Bendena is also standing alongside a world premiere play by Daniels and the chance to again perform at the Purple Rose Theatre. There is certainly plenty of passion in the room and Bendena is more than excited to get this play “on the road.”

Bendena made his PRTC debut back in March 2013 in “33 Variations” and since then has become a fixture on the popular Chelsea stage. “Roadsigns” is Bendena’s 12th production with The Purple Rose, where he is very proud to be a Resident Artist.

“Roadsigns” also is his second consecutive play at The Purple Rose. He played Albert Edward (Bertie) in David MacGregor’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Souffle,” which closed on Dec. 21.

So you could forgive the young actor for being a little on the tired side.

“Yeah, the overlaps can be a little grueling,” Bendena says. “We have to maintain the full production run here while at the same time rehearsing something new. It’s a pretty tight schedule.”

And the two plays couldn’t be more different.

“The two are widely different,” he says. “Sherlock is a very linear play. Some plays whether they are new or old kind of tell you how they need to be done. We knew Sherlock’s story was going to take place in the beautiful drawing room in his apartment and there was going to be a mystery or two to solve. There was a clear path that everyone was going to follow.

“But Roadsigns is a very circular kind of play. It’s not a linear story at all. It’s a bit of a memory play and goes back in time to present day to a bus trip that is happening in 1978.”

Bendena was well-prepared for the tight schedule and quick turnaround from Bertie to Lanny.

We’ve known for a year that this was how it was going to be so it didn’t sneak up on us,” said Bendena. “And there is no lamenting the schedule. We are all very glad to be here and doing this. You spend most of your life wanting to be an actor so here we are. So it’s great.”

Where Bendena is now is somewhat unfamiliar territory. Not only is he taking the lead in Daniels’ latest world-premiere play, but he is playing the guitar and signing. And there is no blueprint for an original play. No book to read. No video to watch or play to go see. It’s as raw as raw gets on a stage.

“Like everything here at the Purple Rose, it’s a great project and very exciting to do,” Bendena says. “And it’s really a special thing to be working on a world premiere. There is no existing thing to go off of. Everything is new.”

Bendena’s character Lanny (Lance) in “Roadsigns” is loosely based on the creative spirit of Lanford Wilson, who was a brilliant American playwright and someone who was hugely influential to Daniels back in his early days in New York. And his influence is still widely felt on the stage and in the halls of the Purple Rose.

“Lanny is a guy who has spent his whole life telling stories, playing his guitar in small clubs and writing but never really having any commercial or financial success,” Bendena says. “He just lives and dies by his own creative spirit. It’s like a valentine to Lanford and a valentine to those people who use a little bit of imagination to get by in this life.

“Jeff has said that Lanford always had opportunities to make a ton of money as some unknown doctor to a Hollywood movie script. But he always turned that down. He stayed true to what he wanted to do and wrote about what he wanted to write about.”

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And there is obviously a lot of Daniels in the play.

“The singer-songwriter storyline which Jeff is obviously so good at and is sort of the platform we use to tell this story,” Bendena says. “And Roadsigns is a poem that Lanford wrote as a young man about this bus trip. So this is a bus trip that Lanford took as a young man in the early 1970s from Missouri heading to Chicago. Lanford gave Jeff the poem and said that it might make a good song so Jeff turned it into a song back in the summer of 1978.

“And that song is the launching point for this story. So you have all the characters on the bus in Lanford’s poem who were the characters on the bus in Jeff’s song and are now the people in this play. So it’s a really cool intersection of a lot of things that are very personal to the Purple Rose with Jeff and Lanford and a poem that has been a part of Jeff’s life for 40 plus years.”

“Roadsigns” features nine songs – it’s a play with music. And Bendena is the “band” in this play.

“I’ve played guitar as a hobby for the last 20 years but never in front of a large group of people who pay money to hear it,” he says. “I never played in this folk-guitar style that Jeff plays so I’ve spent the last year trying to get my right hand do what Jeff’s right hand does. The liberating thing is that Lanny is not widely successful. I don’t have to be a fantastic guitar player or a fantastic singer because it’s all about the storytelling.

“Jeff wrote some really beautiful songs for each character about this path to the American dream they are chasing. And we have some really tremendous singers in this cast.”

“Roadsigns” runs through March 14 at the Purple Rose in Chelsea.

Ticket Information
All performances will be held at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, Michigan 48118.   Ticket prices range from $23 to $47 with special discounts for students, seniors, teachers, members of the military and groups (12+). For more information or to make reservations call (734) 433-7673 or go HERE

Photos by Danna Segrest