During a recent conversation with Tally Sessions, cast member of The Gardens of Anuncia, I dispatched with the obvious question straightaway: Is this the first time you’ve played a deer? At most, I thought that Sessions, who grew up on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina and attended the state’s fine performing-arts program at Chapel Hill, might have played Bambi in a grade-school musical pageant – not a full production, as Bambi is one of the few classics that Disney has not repurposed for Broadway.
“I have never played a deer,” Sessions replied.
In his delightful performance in The Garden of Anuncia, in which he portrays the cervine creature with whom the memory-laden female narrator conducts conversations amidst her vegetable beds, Sessions makes up for the lack. And this is not a dim, proverbial caught-in-headlights character he’s inhabiting. Michael John LaChiusa, the show’s creator, has written a mammal whose wise cracks perhaps have hints, LaChiusa told Sessions, of old-school comics like Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield.
Sessions had done three LaChiusa shows previously, but the new one stands out. “Michael John told me I was on his mind when he wrote the deer character,” Sessions said, “and it takes full advantage of my skill set.” Aside from a facility for humor, those talents include singing. “I am a baritone who can go high,” Sessions said. That is an advantage, he continued, in today’s musical theater, “where there are more demands for voices that can travel higher, a little outside the range.” He added that LaChiusa can spotlight a fetching voice but that “he doesn’t write so somebody can just show off. There’s a reason the songs are voiced the way they are.”
Sessions told me that for him The Gardens of Anuncia has added significance owing to personal reasons. It received its initial production in autumn 2021, at the Old Globe Theater, in San Diego. That same year, Sessions drove back to his native North Carolina to be with his mother, who had lung cancer. “Shortly after she passed, I drove cross-country, to begin rehearsals. I had a lot of time to reflect about my relationship with her, which coincided with the fact that the show is about honoring the people who made you.”
The Gardens of Anuncia came along at a resonant moment for Sessions not only because of his mother’s death but because of his work with drama students. “For the past five years, I have been teaching at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Art,” Sessions said. “Among the many things that teaching has given me is the importance of giving something back to your profession. One of the ways we do that is to pass along knowledge we ourselves have received from our elders. As The Gardens of Anuncia so beautifully reminds us, it’s important not to forget them.”
As Sessions said this, my memory flashed to a line in the 1970 movie I Never Sang for My Father, based on a play by Robert Anderson, in which the Gene Hackman character says, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” The character regrets not spending more time with his parents, and not being fully present when they were together. In Anuncia, the Deer voices a similar sentiment in a duet with Older Anuncia, played by Priscilla Lopez, called “Dance While You Can.”
“It’s such a joy to work with Priscilla,” Sessions related. “She reminded me that when I talk to her in her garden I’m virtually the only character in the piece with whom she has proper scenes. That was helpful.” As for Graciela Daniele, upon whose life, younger and older, the musical is based, Sessions remarked, “She told me that Older Anuncia talking to deer was not at all a Michael John fabrication. She really has talked to deer in her garden upstate.”
As our conversation wound down, I asked Sessions if he himself had ever tended a garden. “No,” he answered. “But I’m proud of myself for a related reason. On opening night of this production, Grazie gave us all a potted amaryllis as a gift. And while it’s true that my fellow cast members’ plants have been growing exponentially better than mine I’m still proud of myself.”
“Because it’s been a month,” he joked, “and I still haven’t managed to kill it.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.