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In perfect form


by Andrea Palpant

Almost all of us know what it feels like to disappear, to be marginalized to the shadows, for looks, for age, for race, for height or faith or weight. And most of us know what it feels like to fantasize about the other side -- that bright-lit hub of social life, that seeming center point that tempts us with a radiant promise of undying affection and the unyielding attention of the public eye. This is our fundamental human need: a frantic surge to be understood, a desire to be known, a ruthless drive to be seen.

Writer and actress Leslie Harrell Dillen understands and addresses these complex issues of identity and fantasy in her one-woman play entitled me & amp; george, set to come to the Civic Theatre March 16-25.

"Anybody who has felt on the outside of things, who has wondered, 'Where do I fit in?' and experienced a sense of fantasy, will identify with this," says Dillen.

As a stand-in on the set for the film A Perfect Storm, which was filmed in her hometown of Gloucester, Mass., Dillen saw an up-close shot of Hollywood culture -- that mecca of American entertainment which continues to be a prototype for fantasies of fame and fortune. Dillen's rendezvous with Hollywood came not in the form of stardom, though, but rather in a kind of pseudo-stardom.

As a stand-in, Dillen literally stood silent in the place of a principal female player while lighting and camera angles were adjusted -- an apparent ghost for the real star, who was off preparing for the scene and rehearsing lines.

"I'd been an actress for 30 years around the country and done all right, not been rich or famous or anything," says Dillen. "Then I became a grandmother, so the shock of becoming a grandmother in my 50s, and there I was a stand-in, no longer a person with lines -- just filling in -- and it was very symbolic of how I felt in life. It was very depressing. Suddenly, having that reality -- being on the set and feeling like I was acting out this transitional moment -- I was inside my own metaphor. It was very eerie."

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Dillen trained with Stanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, as well as at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco under the direction of William Ball. Over the years, she has acted in New York, L.A., Boston, and San Francisco, mostly in stage performances along with some roles in film and television.

Dillen also has seven plays to her name, among them Haunted by Home, Screen Door Melody, Revelation, Love is the Law and Death Quilt, which premiered at the Civic Theatre in 1992. Although her latest drama, me & amp; george, deals with issues of psychological, social and emotional identity, which seem inherently heavy-duty, Dillen approaches them with a sense of light humor and good-natured wit.

"For heaven's sake, imagine being six inches from George Clooney and you can't say a thing to him, how funny is that?" says Marilyn Langbehn, marketing director for the Civic Theatre. "It's that god-awful moment of hero worship -- the person you want to say hello to, and you can't bring yourself to open your mouth. A lot of the humor of the moment in the play comes out of that. Besides, Leslie's a very funny lady."

Dillen also brings in the stories and dreams of her youth, which add another dimension to an encounter with the frustration and fantasy of her adult self.

"When I was a girl, I had an imaginary husband named George," says Dillen. "George Clooney reminded me of the George I made up as a kid, so suddenly here I am watching George, a very funny guy, and he was 'real,' so that definitely stimulated my imagination. Throughout the drama, I keep trying to run into him, to speak to him, but I'm too afraid. Will I ever speak to George? You'll have to come and find out. In my piece, what I discover is that George is a wonderful, empowering helper, and he gives me strength as a companion -- but I end up having to do it for myself, in terms of establishing my identity."

Although somewhat American in content and style, me & amp; george has successfully gone beyond the immediate shores, with performances in Edinburgh, Scotland, in addition to Gloucester and Boston. The Civic Theatre will house Dillen's fourth and last performance.

"I think this play will have enormous resonance for a lot of people," says Langbehn, "particularly for women of an age, shall we say, as well as for people who want that experience of being on inside something as big and major as a motion picture, or those who simply have a crush on George Clooney."

"It's very exciting to me to have so many different people respond," says Dillen. "I thought, 'Who wants to hear a white, middle-aged woman's voice?' But a lot of baby boomers, especially women, will say, 'I can't believe you're saying what I'm feeling, in menopause, in my fantasy life.'

"Ageism is another ugly prejudice that has to be gotten past. Especially at middle age, you feel like you've disappeared. At 50, there's a whole second half of your life -- it's a whole other exciting ball game. We're still vital and healthy and have a lot to give. We're alive, not dead -- don't count us out!"

& & & lt;i & Me & amp; George runs March 16-18 and 23-25 at the Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard. Friday and Saturday shows start at 8 pm; Sunday matinees are at 2 pm. Tickets $12: Call 325-2507. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &