What makes Bruce Cromer one of our region’s best actors? He’s especially good at virtuous characters such as Atticus Finch, the admirable, broadminded attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird, a role he’s currently playing for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC). A year ago he was Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons for CSC, a character whose integrity and faith compel him to deny the will of his king.
But Cromer has breadth beyond these stand-up characters. If you’ve attended A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse since 1997, you’ve seen him, first as an antic Bob Cratchit for seven years and, since 2004, as the miserly Scrooge who becomes a man you’d welcome to your Christmas feast. His versatility was fully demonstrated last season when he played several morally corrupt men in the Playhouse’s production of Speaking in Tongues; a supportive friend and editor of the central character, a wounded photographer, in Ensemble Theatre’s Time Stands Still; and then Dan, the beleaguered husband of a schizophrenic wife in next to normal for Ensemble’s revival of the hit musical in June.
I could fill this column by enumerating his many performances at Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company (approximately two dozen) or the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (19 productions, 1979-1986). That would demonstrate his scope of versatility, but I’d like to give you more of a sense of the man himself. In a recent phone conversation, Cromer told me that bigger and better roles have been coming his way since he reached middle age. “People told me,” he offers with a jesting tone, “that all my competition would get wiser and move on for the money and drop out of acting.”
But that’s a demurral.
He surely has gotten better and better with age: He played Hamlet and Romeo in his Alabama Shakes days, but now he’s done King Lear and The Tempest’s Prospero. He’s equally at home in contemporary work (his searing portrait of George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Cincy Shakes was an award winner in 2005) and classics, and he’s played leading roles in musicals, including Fredrik, a frustrated middle-aged husband, in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (New Stage Collective, 2009).
Cromer grew up in Westerville, Ohio, where his dad was an ROTC instructor at Otterbein College with a passion for skits and storytelling. “He liked Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor,” he recalls. “He would warn my brothers and me, ‘I’m going to say things about you. They’re not going to be real. They’re going to make people laugh.’ ” Cromer himself still chuckles when he recalls this.
As a college student, Cromer thought of pursuing a career in writing, but theater won out. “It seemed easier to me,” he confesses. “From the day I walked into Wright State, I never doubted that this is something I love to do.” Others recognized his talent, and he found professional opportunities beyond Ohio. Preferring regional theater to the New York City rat race, he spent time in Seattle and Alabama. But in 1987 when Wright State invited him to come back to train undergraduate actors, he knew he wanted to be there. He’s been on the faculty for a total of 23 years. He and his family live in artsy Yellow Springs, and southwestern Ohio’s theaters have provided plenty of fertile ground for him.
“Very smart directors like Lynn Meyers [ETC], Michael Haney [Cincinnati Playhouse] and Brian Phillips [Cincy Shakes] ask me to do roles they think are right for me. I’m grateful for the opportunities,” he says.
Cromer has simple rules that he teaches his acting students. “I tell them they need to be off book before they begin rehearsing,” he explains, meaning they must have their lines memorized. “The joy is making eye contact with your partners onstage and starting to find all the little nuances in what makes this particular moment or sentence different from the next.” That advice exemplifies Cromer’s detailed personal acting style.
Add to that his profound understanding of the meaning of the works he’s bringing to life. I asked him why someone should come to see To Kill a Mockingbird. He replied, “If you despair of the polarity of our country, this is a story that talks about the best of us. Over and over, Atticus tells the children to consider things from another human being’s point of view, to walk in their shoes for a while.” Few actors walk in another’s shoes better than Bruce Cromer.
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