A large portion of Boston's theatre community turned out on Sept. 11 for a memorial tribute to Skip Ascheim, the highly esteemed critic and director, who succumbed to cancer on Aug. 6 at the age of 56. The Cambridge gathering took place in the Radcliffe Yard at the Agassiz Theater, where Ascheim had acted and directed as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1960s.
The assemblage included officials of almost all the local theatre companies, large and small, along with a host of actors and actresses (some from far away), all the important Boston-area critics and directors, and ordinary theatregoers who admired Ascheim's reviews over the past two decades in the Tab newspapers, the Improper Bostonian, the Boston Phoenix, and the Boston Globe.
The program, entitled "Celebrating Skip Ascheim," was opened and closed by award-winning actress Dee Nelson, Ascheim's companion for the last eleven years. She called him "a touchstone of intellect for many people," who was able to "cut through nonsense." At the same time, she said he could double over in laughter while watching "The Simpsons" on television. Above all there shone "a core of generosity and goodness."
Director Joann Green Breuer spoke of Ascheim's "boyish enthusiasm" and "consistent respect for the art of theater." Ed Siegel, chief theatre critic for the Boston Globe, recalled sharing the anti-war milieu of Cambridgeport years ago and saluted "Skip's firm moral center." Siegel said it was Skip's laudatory review of a small troupe's production of Equus a few years ago that opened his eyes to the truly distinguished work of which struggling fringe companies were capable.
Critic Bill Marx, a Phoenix and Globe colleague, termed Ascheim "a mensch with brains, fighting a thousand battles with stubborn intelligence." Marx also remarked on the uncanny "parking karma" by which Ascheim was constantly able to find a parking space for his car near any Boston theatre he attended -- something nobody else has duplicated. Critic Robin Dougherty, once of Boston and recently a Florida reviewer, recalled Ascheim's advice to her to above all "try to discern authenticity." Dr. John Munder Ross, a Harvard schoolmate who is now a New York psychoanalyst, remembered Ascheim's performance in Julius Caesar at the Loeb Drama Center, and read an appreciation for Ascheim's friendship over the decades from his son Matthew, now a 24-year-old Californian. Jeremiah Kissel, the first Outstanding Boston Actor honoree at the Elliot Norton Awards, who played Leontes in The Winter's Tale that Ascheim memorably directed as founder of the Boston Theatre Project in 1990, recalled the director's "incredible dreaming vision" in choosing that difficult play for a debut, and insisting on staging it in the venerable Brattle Theatre, where Paul Robeson first performed Othello in America and later a celebrated stage company would mount its offerings before it was turned into a movie theatre.
Paula Plum and Richard Snee (often called "the Lunts of Boston") reprised their original skit about critics (which Ascheim had enjoyed on an earlier occasion), in which amusing barbs were directed at each member of the Boston Theater Critics Association, including Ascheim. Margaret Ann Brady and Dorothy Dwyer also performed a "Mrs. Potatoheads" sketch.
Set designer Eric Levenson, who had met Ascheim through the Harvard Summer Players in the early sixties, cited Ascheim's involvement in a pre-school program in the 1970s, and added, "I shall miss him in small pieces." Further comments came from Laurence Senelick, a Tufts University theatre scholar and director, and from Ascheim's brother Cappy, who traveled from Pittsburgh. Outside the world of theatre, tributes were offered by three representatives of the Massachusetts Go Association (go being a sort of Japanese chess), which Ascheim put on the map and served as president for 23 years.
Ascheim himself contributed to the evening through the parody of Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" speech that he wrote for the retirement celebration of former Boston Herald chief critic Arthur Friedman, who was on hand to read it. Interspersed throughout the event were readings of four poems that Ascheim wrote in his late teens and twenties. A lovely fifth poem, "To Art," writtten when he was eighteen, adorned the back page of the printed program.
It was announced that the Boston Theatre Critics Association had voted to make an award in Ascheim's memory at next June's Elliot Norton Awards ceremony. The assembly adjourned to the neighboring ballroom for a reception, which featured a display of photographs of Ascheim and a sample of some of his writings, in one of which he styled himself "an unreconstructed counterculturalist."
Donations in Skip Ascheim's memory may be made to the Theater Community Benevolent Fund, and sent to Polly Hogan, Lyric West Theatre Company, 95 Freeport Street, Boston MA 02122.
Special to Playbill On-Line