Jim and Melissa Wilkeson are doing something this weekend they have not done in 16 years of marriage: They're performing opposite each other in a play.
Both Wilkesons are familiar to Lexington theatergoers. Jim has played roles such as Dub in Dearly Beloved and Christmas Belles, and the title role in Fortinbras at Studio Players. Melissa played Patsy Cline's biggest fan in Studio's blockbuster production of Always ... Patsy Cline and recently had multiple roles in Balagula Theatre's The Book of Liz.
They have been in the same shows a couple of times recently — as in Christmas Belles — and in the Midway 10-Minute Play Festival.
But no show had brought them together onstage until The Woodford Theatre's production of John Cariani's Almost, Maine, which opened this weekend and runs through Feb. 12 at Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center in Versailles.
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"Our dogs aren't very happy," Melissa says. Jim adds, "Our dogs hate us right now. They're like, 'Are you ever going to be home again, ever again?'"
Aside from the canine conundrum, Jim says, "It's great to finally be in something together and see how it works, see how we look onstage. We looked pretty good on the altar."
Their union was born of nine intense months at the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theatre Training in Jupiter, Fla., where they both were students and company members. There, they worked long hours, sometimes performing in a children's show, a black-box show, a main stage dinner theater show and in lessons with Reynolds — all in one day.
"We were together all the time," Wilkeson recalls. "We did nothing but theater from the time we woke up until, literally, sometimes Burt Reynolds would come in and say he wanted to have a class at midnight."
Their relationship grew quickly. They started dating in November 1993 and got engaged on Christmas Eve. But they had a long engagement.
"There was no way on God's green earth I was going to marry him after not living in the real world for nine months," Melissa says of the institute.
They tied the knot Oct. 21, 1995, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington. Four days later, they moved to New York — "pursuing our theater dream," Melissa says.
During the next three years, Melissa got some work, mostly at regional theaters in places like Boston and Florida.
"We'd just gotten married," Melissa says. "It wasn't conducive to a healthy start to a marriage."
Add to that the financial pressures of living in New York City.
Jim says, "The problem with New York is you don't live in New York unless you're wealthy. You survive."
On Melissa's 30th birthday, they decided to move back to Lexington, where she'd grown up, graduating from Lexington Catholic in 1986 and the University of Kentucky in 1990 with a degree in theater.
Jim, who is from Pittsburgh, says Melissa immediately started getting theater roles in Lexington. By this point, he had become very choosy in terms of what he wanted, favoring broad comic roles.
"I gotta get some laughs," says Jim, 46, who works by day as a Web content manager for WLEX (Channel 18). "That's my payment for doing theater."
Mainly though, he says, he's his much busier wife's biggest fan. His favorite roles of hers, he says, were as the stage manager in Noises Off and as one of the stepsisters in Cinderella, both at The Woodford Theatre.
Melissa, 43, who works for the UK College of Medicine as an educational and standardized patient program coordinator, says she knows Jim's favorite of his own roles is Fortinbras, though she likes his performances as Dub, particularly in Dearly Beloved, "because you were more grounded as the father of the bride. It was different, and it wasn't something I'm used to seeing you do."
Of course, what she's really not used to is seeing him opposite her onstage.
Almost, Maine, the local directorial debut for Woodford Theatre's new artistic director, Steven J. Arnold, involves eight stories of people in a mythical Northeastern town falling in and out of love. All members of the four-person cast — which also includes Carmen Geraci and Pamela Perlman, play multiple characters and opposite each other. The Wilkesons share two stories.
"As actors, to bring a relationship into the rehearsal process that is a marriage, you bring your professional selves in and leave the other stuff at home, because you see each other all the time," Melissa says. "Normally I'm the one that's out and he's at home."
At home with the dogs.