This is not an obituary.
It’s the limited perspective of a playwright/director who had the privilege of working with a talent who we recently lost.
I didn’t know Robert Neal socially, except by his reputation as a great guy. I only knew him through his work.
I have seen him many times on stage but also had the honor of having him breathe life into two of my characters. That’s all I’m qualified to write about here.
In “Midwestern Hemisphere” (based on an unpublished novel I wrote with Eric Pfeffinger), he played myopic jerk Jerry, a character who could easily have been off-putting to audiences. But while never asking us to forgive or excuse Jerry, Robert found a way to mine the guy’s cluelessness in a way that kept him comic and compelling … and very human. You may have rolled your eyes at what he said or did, but you didn’t take your eyes off him.
He was a gift to that production.
And, bonus, his strong voice overcame the acoustic challenges of our unusual venue, the Indianapolis Artsgarden. (There’s a good reason why MidHem was the last — as far as I know — full stage production performed there.)
A few years later, as part of the SiteLines Indy series, co-producer John Thomas and I were looking for someone to play Stephen Douglas in Norman Corwin’s “The Rivalry,” about the Lincoln/Douglas debates. If this were a fully staged production, I don’t think anyone would consider Robert for the part of the 5’4”’ “Little Giant.” But, history be damned, both John and I wanted him for the part and were thrilled when he accepted. In our brief rehearsal time I experienced Robert’s insightful, probing, generous talent — even with a relatively rookie director.
In case you missed it in its one-night-only performance at the Indiana Historical Society, Georgeanna Smith Wade played Adele Douglas and Ryan Artsberger was Abraham Lincoln. Thanks in large part to Robert, it was an evening of insight and delight.
More recently, when I had the first draft of what would become my play “Rita From Across the Street” written and needed to hear it in front of an audience, I knew without a doubt who I wanted to give first voice to Mark, the ordinary guy whose sense of duty led him to give up his business to take care of his brother.
I needed someone who could play strength and sadness, who could casually flirt with the tenant next store without being creepy. I needed someone hungry for engagement but willing to accept the cards dealt to him. I needed someone who understood the man behind his words.
Robert was nothing short of ideal in the part. It was so different from Jerry in MidHem but equally right for Robert. That’s called “range.”
In all honesty, it was tough to focus on the reason for the reading — to troubleshoot my play and find out what it needed — because he and co-lead Constance Macy elevated it. It’s tough to be critical of your own work when you are basking in such talents, amazed at what they are discovering in the moment.
I wanted to work with Robert again.
Like many in the Indiana theater commuter, I feel an emptiness knowing that won’t be possible.