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JOAN WICKERSHAM

Jeremy Geidt, the actor who mastered paradox

Jeremy Geidt performed with Cherry Jones in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the ART in 1982. Geidt died earlier this month in Cambridge at age 83.

The Boston Globe/file

Jeremy Geidt performed with Cherry Jones in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the ART in 1982. Geidt died earlier this month in Cambridge at age 83.

The first time I saw Jeremy Geidt act, I didn’t know I was seeing Jeremy Geidt act. It was 1977 at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The play was Ted Tally’s “Terra Nova.” I watched the five members of Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole shiver, starve, hallucinate, and cheer and terrify one another. They were noble, they were foolish, they were ambitious and deluded, they were dying. I was riveted. I forgot I was watching actors. In fact, I left the theater without having learned the names of the actors — it was a play about a team, and it felt as though the actors too were a team. Now, more than 30 years later, I can still picture their haggard bewildered faces against the ice.

When I moved to Cambridge in 1980, I started going to see plays at the American Repertory Theater. Being young and incurious, I didn’t know that Robert Brustein and several core members of his Yale Rep ensemble had just started this company, but I did notice that virtually every play I saw there included an actor whom I recognized from “Terra Nova,” and came to think of as “that guy.” As in, “There’s that guy again.” He was English. His voice was low and honey-smooth, but astringent, too. He played doctors and fools, peevish Russian fathers, overbearing police inspectors, manipulative aristocrats. After a while I knew that guy’s name — Jeremy Geidt — and was happy whenever he walked onto the stage.

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The castor oil plant is dramatic in many ways.

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He endowed his characters with a paradoxical complexity. He was at once stable and subtly chaotic. He never lacked conviction, and he demonstrated that conviction doesn’t always make sense. He was doggedly attached to his own inner logic, which might, but more likely might not, accord with anyone else’s sense of logic. His certainty came with a wild gleam of anarchy. His paternal authority was absolute and amiss. Dad was home, but Dad was nuts. I remember him as Mr. Darling in “Peter Pan” (Dad was home, but this only served to underscore that no one was home). And he was a chilling Mr. Peacham in “The Threepenny Opera” (Dad was home and would have been so cozy if he hadn’t been a monster).

He played big parts and small parts, tragic and comic. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was the mechanicals scene in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Geidt playing a man playing a lion, effortlessly tossing the comedic lines around with his longtime fellow ensemble members. Year after year, play after play, Geidt went on appearing at the ART. Some plays I saw, others I didn’t. I was spoiled. This guy, and all the other guys and women who made up the ART’s repertory company, had been my neighborhood theater company since I was 17. They’d always been there, and in some way I assumed they always would be.

When I heard earlier this month that Jeremy Geidt had died, at the age of 83, it was hard to believe I’d never see him on the stage again. And I remembered a walk my husband and I took in our neighborhood one summer evening five or six years ago. We stopped to admire a plant in someone’s garden. “Admire” is too mild a word. We gaped. The plant was huge — as tall as a person — with leaves that looked like gigantic many-fingered hands. We had never seen anything like it. As we stood there ogling it, the homeowner came out and said hello and we talked for a while. Very early in the conversation — the minute I heard his voice — I realized it was Jeremy Geidt. I was too shy to tell him I recognized him or to say (and I regret this now) how much I loved his work. We talked about the plant. He was kind and warm and urbane.

When my husband and I got home, I Googled “castor bean” and found that the plant’s seeds are highly poisonous. I started to laugh, and thought again of Jeremy Geidt as Mr. Peacham. That upright and sophisticated plant could not have been more beautiful or more deadly.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’
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