Laurie Genet Preston and Robert Parks Johnson fall easily into reminiscing about their first encounters with each other in Lexington theater.
"The play that was onstage when I first moved to Lexington, Laurie was in; it was Marvin's Room," says Johnson, who was technical director at Actors Guild of Lexington. "My first memory of Laurie was, of course, in the play, this striking brunette. But then at strike, when I came out to gather the actors and say, 'Now let's go in,' she was sitting in the lobby smoking a cigarette and she rolled her eyes like, 'Oh, my. Here we go.'"
Preston says, laughing, "I don't remember that. Angels in America was one of my favorite memories. He was the technical director, and I was the angel, and when it came time to lower me in, he had to lower me down every time. That was my first trusted experience, and then he's directed me in several shows, and honestly taught me more about Shakespeare than anyone else I know."
Over nearly two decades, Johnson and Preston obviously have warmed to each other since that introductory eye roll. Preston says she quotes Johnson so much while teaching drama at Sts. Peter and Paul School that the students want her to have him talk to the class.
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Johnson says Preston's presence in the cast of Balagula Theatre's current production, Moira Buffini's Dinner, was all he needed to know to sign on to the show.
Though they have been in many of the same shows — his Lennie killed her Curley's Wife in AGL's 1999 production of Of Mice and Men — this will be only the second time they have played a couple, the first being a 1998 production of Richard Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon.
In Dinner, as Paige and Lars, they are hardly a happy, loving pair.
"He has chosen not to feel, and Paige, who is kind of this passionate, emotional women, responds by doing anything to get a response out of him, anything," Johnson says.
Preston says, "It takes a certain person to make the decisions everyone makes in the entire play."
The actors liken it to War of the Roses, the 1989 Michael Douglas- Kathleen Turner movie about a couple whose animosity toward each other reaches lethal levels.
Paige and Lars' battle is played out at a dinner party thrown in honor of Lars' new pop-philosophy book. The gathering is attended by an interesting cast of characters, including his mistress and a stranger who comes in after a car crash outside their home.
"It's not your usual dark comedy, or mystery, or any of those things," Preston says. "Natasha and Ryan would never choose anything that is so conventional," she adds, referring to Balagula directors Natasha Williams, who is doing Dinner, and Ryan Case.
And while they have worked in a variety of theaters and concede a soft spot for Actors Guild, they say part of the appeal of working at Balagula is Case and Williams' direction and what it presents.
Preston says, "Balagula is always putting up work to talk about, and as an actor, that's what you want to do."