Bob Bernhardt is accustomed to being onstage in front of a large audience with the bright lights, the curtain rising, the applause and the nervousness that precedes a performance. He's done it hundreds of times as a conductor leading symphonies here and around the country.
But when he was asked to take a lead role in a play, he needed to think about it, which may surprise anyone who has ever seen him at a show and heard him tell jokes and craft puns, or give brief histories of the works the symphony is performing. Shy, he is not. Of course, neither is he an actor, though he did one play in college.
"I took a few weeks to decide because I was struggling with the idea," he says. "It is somewhat outside of my comfort zone. Most of the time when I am onstage, my back is to the audience. And most of what I do is wordless, which is part of why I have such admiration for actors."
If you go
› What: “Love Letters” featuring Mimi Kennedy and Bob Bernhardt.
› When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10; reception with live music by Robin Grant at 7 p.m.
› Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.
› Admission: $50 general, $75 VIP.
› Phone: 423-267-8534.
› Website: www.theatrecentre.com.
“The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” an Agatha Christie mystery, is also playing at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre this weekend. Performances start at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Due to the popularity of the show, two more performances have been added for Thursday at 7 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 8 p.m., though that show is already sold out. Tickets are $11-$30.
Bernhardt, music director emeritus and principal pops conductor for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, did agree to take the role of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III in "Love Letters," however, in part because it is a fundraiser for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and also because he will be sharing the stage with none other than Mimi Kennedy, one of the stars of "Mom" on CBS. She will play Melissa Gardner.
The two will be doing the play on Saturday as a one-night-only performance. Pairing the two was the idea of Kennedy's brother, Jim Kennedy. He is the president of the CTC board and is also directing the production.
Jim Kennedy says CTC Executive Director Todd Olson suggested doing a one-night special performance such as "Love Letters" as a fundraiser and maybe also bringing in a name actor to do a one-person show as another one.
"I said, 'Well, I know a name performer who has done a one-person show," Kennedy recalls. He'd seen his big sister play Ann Landers in "The Lady With All the Answers."
"I conflated the two," he says.
Mimi Kennedy says there was a very brief moment where it was suggested that the siblings play the roles of lifelong friends who communicate via letters for five decades, but the "ick factor took over."
The two characters are lifelong friends, but there are moments where romance comes into play.
"I thought it would be fun," she says of acting with her brother, "but then my husband and I read it out loud around the kitchen table one day, and we were both almost weeping. My brother will have some say in it, though," she says with a laugh.
Jim Kennedy's wife, Barbara, suggested Bernhardt for the male lead. Though he is friends with Jim Kennedy, Bernhardt had never met Mimi, even though they grew up around the same time in Rochester, N.Y.
"I am a huge fan of her work, and I am looking forward to being onstage with a brilliant, charming and accomplished actress," he says.
Written by A.R. Gurney, "Love Letters" opened in New York in 1988 with Gurney playing the male lead. It has since starred several A-list performers, including Carol Burnett, Kathleen Turner, Lynn Redgrave, Julie Harris, William Hurt, Jason Robards and Christopher Walken. It has become a popular piece among actors because it doesn't require a lot of rehearsal or memorization.
"It's not easier, but it is less time-consuming," Mimi Kennedy says.
The two characters sit at a table onstage and read from their own letters. In his notes, the playwright suggests that the actors not react to each other, nor even acknowledge that the other person is onstage. Kennedy and Bernhardt will meet and read together for the first time today.
Kennedy was originally a recurring guest on "Mom" in 2013 but became a full-time cast member in 2014. She plays Marjorie on the Chuck Lorre-produced comedy that also stars Allison Janney and Anna Farris.
"Working with them all has been so much fun," she says. "They kept calling me back, and I kept going."
Kennedy, who also starred on TV's "Dharma & Greg," another Lorre-produced show, says she loves the "cold read" that actors on sitcoms do each week when they first read a new script.
"This won't be a cold read, because I have read the play, but I love the excitement and the newness," she says. "I think this is a lovely look at friendship and choices and commitments."
Both actors say the play is also timely in the day of emails and texts.
"I think it's timely because of the sense of privacy that writing letters has," Kennedy says. "They are private for you and, in this case, the person you grew up with."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.