You know his face, but maybe not his name. Richard Jenkins is one of those actors who does good work time and again but seldom gets star billing.
You might have seen him in his Oscar-nominated role in “The Visitor,” or his turn as the deceased — but still talkative — patriarch of the funeral-home family on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” But before TV and film came his way, Jenkins spent much of his early career at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, first as an actor and then as artistic director. And now he’s back at the company, taking on a new role: collaborating with his wife.
Sharon Jenkins is a veteran choreographer at Trinity Rep and elsewhere. And now, a few months ahead of their 45th wedding anniversary, the couple are sharing a credit for the first time. The longtime Rhode Island residents are directing and choreographing “Oliver!” for Trinity Rep, which runs through March 30.
“It’s also Trinity Rep’s 50th anniversary, so [artistic director Curt Columbus] thought it would be a nice idea to bring Richard back,” says Sharon. “I was choreographing here, I never stopped. But it’s the first time he’s come back in about 15 years.”
“We’ll see if it was a good idea or not,” Richard says drily.
Does the work come home with them?
“Oh, yes,” Sharon says.
“Are you kidding? It’s all we talk about,” Richard says.
But when you’re directing a play, it’s always with you anyway, he says. “I’m watching the Olympics, and I’m thinking, ‘Can I get somebody to do a backflip?’ It all comes back to ‘Oliver!’ But that’s the way it is when you work on a play or you work on a film. Everything resonates.”
Actually it’s more like 20 years since he’s been back. Richard Jenkins hit the stage as a Trinity Rep company member for 14 seasons beginning in 1970. He served as artistic director from 1990-94, directing nearly a dozen shows in that time, including “Glass Menagerie,” “The Seagull,” and “The Hope Zone” featuring Olympia Dukakis. But since then, he’s concentrated on film and TV, and he says he’s not planning a return to the stage anytime soon.
“I loved it [but] I always wanted to be in movies,” he says. “I haven’t been on stage in so long, I don’t know if I could anymore. It’s a different skill. I just don’t have that desire. I’m sometimes embarrassed to say it, but I love doing what I’m doing.”
He spent four or five months last year in Massachusetts, mainly on Cape Ann, filming the four-part HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout and starring Frances McDormand. He plays Henry, the husband of the title character.
“I was working on ‘Olive Kitteridge’ in Massachusetts, and every weekend I’d come home,’’ he says, “and we’d sit around and talk about ‘Oliver! ’ We’d talk about ideas and what scenes looked like and how we could get from one place to the next, how would we get from one song to the next, one scene to the next without doing a big scene change and sets rolling in. How do you do this with a show like ‘Oliver!’ that’s huge?”
The Jenkinses say they’re putting a slightly grittier spin on the sprightly musical, which is based on Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” They ended up going back to the novel to see what it was really all about.
“And we reexamined the lyrics to interpret the songs sometimes in a new way,” says Sharon. “There are lots of ways to look at the song ‘Food, Glorious Food,’ which could just be a celebration of food, or it could be about children who are hungry.”
Some contemporary resonance there in new hard times? “Absolutely,” Richard says. “Some things don’t change. It’s about how we treat those with less. So absolutely.”
It’s no wholesale change, they want to make clear, just a tweak of the dial.
“We love the songs. We’re just trying to make it a little grittier, a little more like the novel, a little darker, a little more human. That’s our goal,” he says. “That’s what we can do here. We can’t have 60 kids and all the huge sets and the costumes. We can’t do that anyway, that’s just not the way Sharon or I work.”
No 20-piece orchestra, either, she notes. Instead, five live musicians and a cast of nine adults and nine children.The performers include Phineas Peters, already a Trinity Rep veteran at age 10, as Oliver, and company members Rachael Warren as Nancy and Stephen Berenson as Fagin. The Artful Dodger is played by Noah Parets, 14, of Sharon.
“He had been out on the [‘Billy Elliot the Musical’] tour — as Billy Elliot — for 15 months, so we got really lucky finding someone who could really dance well, and we’re trying to find places to expose his abilities,” Sharon says.
The project is clearly a meeting of like minds; if co-directing has led to any domestic drama, the Jenkinses weren’t sharing it. And working together isn’t really a new thing anyway, Richard says.
“We collaborate all the time,” he says. “If I’m doing a film, I talk about it with her. When she’s choreographing something, she comes home and talks about it with me. We always talk about it, so we kind of never stopped collaborating, really. But we’ve never had it on a piece of paper that we’re co-directing.”