Randy Cheramie gave up acting in 1978. After two seasons with Houston's prestigious Alley Theater, he had come home and, at his father's urging, taken over the family restaurant in Golden Meadow. It's quite likely that he'd still be in the kitchen, if a younger neighbor named Perry Martin hadn't looked him up seven years later. Martin had admired Cheramie's performances in South Lafourche High (which they both attended) and Nicholls State in nearby Thibodaux.
"Perry said, 'Why haven't you been onstage?'" Cheramie recalls. "And I thought, You know what? He's right. Why haven't I? Of course, Perry wasn't just making small talk. He had a role he wanted me to do."
Eighteen years, 17 productions and three Big Easy Entertainment Awards later, Perry Martin and Randy Cheramie are still at it. All My Sons, opening this weekend at Southern Rep, once again features Cheramie (as patriarch Joe Keller), under Martin's direction.
Actually, they've done the play before: in 1988 at the Thibodaux Civic Center -- an unlikely venue for Arthur Miller's lesser-known opus. It was Cheramie's idea, and he produced the show while also acting in it. Perhaps the two friends were giddy with the standing-room-only success of The Great Big Doorstep, a Cajun musical they had done at Oak Alley the previous year (inaugurating a dinner theater that's still in operation).
"I think Randy has different figures," says Martin, "but, according to my calculations, 27 people saw All My Sons."
This wry feast-or-famine fatalism is something Martin and Cheramie share. And with good reason; in 1993, they collaborated on Tant Que Durera La Terre, Louisiana native John Doucet's docu-drama about the killer hurricane of 1893. To everyone's amazement, it was a runaway hit, filling the 1,100-seat South Lafourche High School auditorium for weeks. By comparison, their first foray into the New Orleans theater scene, Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods (at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1997) was seen by practically no one.
"We had to cancel twice because there were more people onstage than in the audience," Martin explains. "And it was a two-man show!"
Nonetheless, the show got five Big Easy nominations and won Best Drama, Best Lighting and Best Actor -- for Cheramie's portrayal of a charming, lonely, world-weary Russian diplomat.
I was one of the lucky few who saw the show and I was so convinced by Cheramie's portrayal that I thought he was a newly arrived Ukrainian or something. With his imposing presence and strong voice, Cheramie has clear natural advantages as an actor. But he also has that undefinable, subtle gift of holding the stage -- that is, of playing to the audience while at the same time remaining true to his character. It's the mark of a true pro.
"It's great to be working with Perry again. I trust him implicitly," says Cheramie, who also has been seen recently in last fall's Spinning Into Butter (also at Southern Rep) and this summer's Snatching Victory at Le Chat Noir. "And then, this play of Miller's, I think it's one of the great American dramas. So does Stella Adler, by the way. When we did it before, we hit upon the right interpretation, I think. We took it as a Greek tragedy. This time, hopefully, more people will get to see it.
"Also, I have more time to concentrate now. Last year, I finally sold the restaurant. Before, whenever I did a show, I was commuting an hour and half in each direction, plus going to work for 6 a.m."
Not that Cheramie has lot of free time. He now teaches Classical French Cuisine at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux.
"When I sold the restaurant, I thought I would devote myself entirely to the theater again," he explains. "You know, leave town and get a job at a regional rep. But I had been teaching cooking part-time and they asked me to come on full-time. Then, something surprising happened: I realized I really like teaching. So I decided to stick around and do my acting locally. And locally's been getting pretty exciting, lately."
That's certainly true this month at Southern Rep, where 20 actors will be performing in three separate shows: All My Sons, A Confederacy of Dunces (a staged reading, Sept. 14 and 21) and David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago (Saturdays this month). Janet Shea, Becky Allen, Sean Patterson, Shirl Ciutat, Adriana Bate, Gary Rucker, Francine Segal, Nell Nolan and Bob Edes (Cheramie's A Walk in the Woods co-star) are among the featured performers -- not to mention fellow south Louisiana trouper John "Spuds" McConnell, who will reprise his role as Ignatius J. Reilly.
It's a great opportunity to see watch great talent working with great material, but best of all, Cheramie says, "Perry and I get to continue our almost telepathic way of working together."
"It's true," agrees Martin. "To see us, sometimes you'd think we were married. And we don't have sex. So, it is almost like being married, I guess."