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Living a Life of Many Stages

March 10, 2011 By:
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Arnold Kendall

You can learn from watching Arnold Kendall on stage.

I did.

Of course, the stage was set somewhat differently 50 years ago, and the body language he was using was English.

But as a teacher, Kendall lit into literature with a daring sense of drama as he taught me and a gang of other Jay Cook Jr. High hopefuls harking back to the early '60s. Kendall inspired, innovated and re-introduced English as a language of tiles tilted into a totem of timeless beauty.

He's still in the tile business.

But those he's laying these days are grouted with grumpy old men, a foursome of former wannabes who find age-old problems besetting their old age -- before they discover the allure of an ancient Chinese game/rejuvenated Jewish social network as "The Men of Mah Jongg."

Wait, Arny, I thought you were starring as "Man of La Mancha."

No, Kendall corrects, he's a man of "Mah Jongg," one of the four who make up a quartet of quarreling quipsters in Richard Atkins' comedy of manners -- rude and redeemed -- at Society Hill Playhouse.

Quixote ... Kendall ... what's the difference? Both reaching for stars -- albeit one was scorned and covered with scars, the other scored roles and is covered with accolades.

Well, there was that review of his performance at Society Hill Playhouse, which plays back in memory as wild card. He recalls "Card of Identity" as an experience with an identity problem for one critic: "I was in my 20s, miscast, the play stunk, it opened with 80 people in the audience, ended with 20, and everyone was panned -- except me; but I was praised for a role I didn't play."

And, 50 years later, director Deen Kogan still deigned to cast him again, in this new work?

Easy to see why. Kendall's accumulated accolades and applause along the way for a theatrical career that has brought him kudos as actor/director country-wide, including such local stages as the Walnut Street Theatre and the Arden.

An ardent academic -- a doctorate at the University of Michigan; undergrad work at Temple University -- he has taught (besides Cook) at universities nationally.

But take him home, country roads? "I dropped out in the '60s and joined a commune in West Virginia," he says.

"Hair" braided into his non-acting bio? Communing once more with his theatrical siren call, Kendall continued before "burning out," then seguing into saleswork -- which he still operates out of his Havertown home -- with now, at this stage of his life, the occasional show.

The 72-year-old leading man leads with his talent. And as Sidney, the depressed 70ish widower dad impressed with mah jongg as not just a game for Jewish women, but as a sign from his wife to re-tile his tired life, Kendall connects to the rejuiced battery that batters the boredom and despair out of his character.

He is happily connected in real life to wife of many years Vicki Murphy; the triathlete's husband the actor sports an affinity for his character's Jewish sensibility: "We have that dark humor" down pat as a people.

As for Sidney at Society Hill, this "pessimist with a joy of life," the most apropos description, avers Kendall, harkens back to the first page of Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouch: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Maddening how some lines stick with you; after all, I first heard that opening in an English class some five decades back from a teacher who proved to have quite the dramatic talent for long-lasting impact.

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