When something threatens a natural resource you've been dependent on, it tends to make you nervous. That's why there was a collective shudder through the Richmond theater community when Scott Wichmann decided to sign up for the U.S. Navy Reserve earlier this spring.
During the last decade, the madly talented actor has powered some of the most exciting shows in town. Since his big breakthrough playing Frank Sinatra in Barksdale Theatre's 1999 production of “Ella and Her Fella, Frank,” Wichmann has played everything from the morally and physically crippled king in “Richard III” to the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” But his singular talent has been his ability to channel a myriad of different characters with breathtaking skill in one-man shows such as “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop,” “I Am My Own Wife” and last year's holiday blockbuster, “This Wonderful Life.”
Wichmann's enlistment has made Barksdale Theatre's upcoming “Fully Committed” seem like a tribute to the actor and a bit of a swan song. A native of Pittsfield, Mass., and a rabid Red Sox fan, the wiry, energetic performer came to Richmond on the recommendation of actors he'd met at the “Lost Colony” — an ongoing outdoor play set in early colonial times — at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, putting in a stint at Busch Gardens along the way.
In “Committed” he cycles through 42 different characters, sometimes with dizzying speed. The play tells the tale of a beleaguered reservation clerk at an absurdly exclusive New York restaurant who's juggling the demands of a frantic clientele with his own personal aspirations. The Barksdale is reviving a 2001 production that brought Wichmann back to Richmond after he'd decamped to Washington briefly in 2000.
The day after “Committed” closes Aug. 30, Wichmann will ship out for four months of recruit training, first in Illinois and then in Mississippi. After that, a deployment is probable. Wichmann, 34, suggests he will volunteer for one, or in military terms, go “IA,” or individual augmentee. “It's only natural that I'm going to want to put all of this training to good use,” he says.
Talking to Wichmann is like watching improvisational comedy. He slips easily into accents and characters. Pop-culture references flow freely and his energy is infectious. This is someone cut out to be an actor, or a radio personality. Last year he dabbled in sports- radio commentary, winning a four-hour stint on WRNL-AM 910. He's also considered stand-up comedy.
It's no wonder then that one of the most common questions Wichmann has fielded since committing to the Reserves is what it means for his acting career. “I have no way of knowing what my life is going to be like after I go through this tunnel,” he says. “But I will come out of this with some great life experience and a new skill set. I'm not too worried about it.”
In the meantime, Wichmann finds parallels between his fledgling military career and his extensive theatrical one. “There's a saying in the armed forces,” he says: “Nothing can get done by one person.” Similarly, even though it will be Wichmann front and center in “Committed,” he's acutely aware of the support he needs for the show to succeed. “With all of the phone rings and sound cues,” he says, “the show is like a dance between me and the stage manager.”
He also credits his director, Steve Perigard, for helping him remember that the show has distinct characters. “Steve has done a great job reminding me to listen to the different characters and respond to them individually — even if they are all me,” Wichmann says.
Beyond his work on stage, Wichmann's helped build a stronger theater community in Richmond, organizing softball and touch football leagues involving actors and other stage professionals. His journey to the Navy Reserves accelerated last year after he joined the local SEAL Team Physical Training program, and he's since recruited more than a half-dozen other theater people. “The SEAL [participants] call us the Art Department,” Wichmann says, laughing.
Even after his training and possible deployment, he'll have an ongoing commitment to the Navy for regular drills one weekend a month and two full weeks a year, which could make securing roles dicey in the future. But Wichmann says Richmond will be the perfect place for him.
Here, he's been able to augment his acting career writing and directing touring shows for Theatre IV. His professional success has been complemented by personal fulfillment, too, as marked by his recent six-year anniversary of marriage to Jennifer Meharg, an accomplished local actor in her own right.
“I came here thinking I was just passing through,” Wichmann says. “But I love working in a town where you know the people at the coffee shop, where you run into friends at the grocery store. I will be back. This is just a chapter ending.” S
“Fully Committed” plays through Aug. 30 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road in Hanover. Tickets are $15-$38. 282-2620. www.barksdalerichmond.org.