Forrest Attaway: A Rebel Deserving Applause

In the past nine years, the Texas-born actor has established himself as one of KC’s best.

Rogue. Nomad. Rebel.

These labels describe the slightly larger-than-life persona of Forrest Attaway, an itinerant actor who drifted into town back in 2007. But they also describe many of the roles he’s played on Kansas City stages in the last nine years — by which he established himself as one of the city’s best actors.

His local debut was in 2007 as a fast-talking thief named Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre at its previous location in a downtown warehouse. My reaction as a critic: Who is this guy? Where’s he been?

Since then audiences have seen him at the MET’s current (and soon to be former) home near 36th and Main as the guilt-racked, terminally alcoholic James Tyrone Jr. in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten; a hard-drinking defrocked priest in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana; a Depression-era flimflam man in N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker; and as Trigorin, a playwright whose compulsion to write colors all of his relationships in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

For Kansas City Actors Theatre he played the fragmented, suicidal street philosopher named Jerry in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story (one half of KCAT’s production of At Home at the Zoo.) And at the Living Room he’s appeared in memorable productions of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, as well as an audacious staging of Shakespeare’s ultra-violent Titus Andronicus by director Kyle Hatley.

But Attaway, 42, isn’t just an actor. He’s also a producer and playwright. And in the last year or so he’s said more than once that he intends to quit acting and devote all his time to writing. It hasn’t happened yet.

As a playwright he has revealed a split personality. There’s the serious, brooding Attaway who wrote Worth, a tough drama about crime and the middle class (KC Fringe audiences saw a condensed, 60-minute version a few years back). And Living Room audiences saw his Columbus Day, which juxtaposed the tale of an unwed mother in Texas with a classroom of high-school kids held hostage by a round-the-bend teacher with a shotgun.

More recently, however, the Living Room produced his Chainsaw, a satirical musical vaguely inspired by the 1970s horror flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and KC Fringe audiences saw his alien-invasion farce, Outta Beer & Outta Space: A Redneck Galactic Adventure. The musicals and broad comedies, he explains, are written for “the mob.” In other words, they are designed to sell tickets.

When Attaway discusses his life, the listener gets a kaleidoscopic, non-linear narrative. After his local debut in 2007, he wasn’t seen again until the MET brought him back for Moon For the Misbegotten in 2010. Where was he during the interim?

“Where was I? I could have either been in Oregon or Florida,” he said. “Or I might have been in Philadelphia. I don’t know.”

He’s a native of Gun Barrel City, Texas (a lake town southeast of Dallas, not to be confused with Cut and Shoot, Texas, where Chainsaw is set). There he attended Mabank High School, where, he says, he was a class president and was voted “class favorite.”  Later he attended college (Texas A&M – Commerce), joined the National Guard and ended up doing a stint in the regular Army.

He describes himself as a “loose cannon” in those days. Lots of drinking. Occasional fistfights.

He’s full of vignettes: His mother literally abandoned Forrest and his brother in an apartment; if a truant officer hadn’t come looking they might not have been found. He has one full brother, one half-brother and three half-sisters. Attaway is the oldest.

“My father seemed to marry a lot,” he said.

Attaway is still a rebel. By his own account he torpedoed an audition at Kansas City Repertory Theatre by offering his unvarnished opinion of the script with the playwright in the room. But two years ago he was married. And he and his wife, actress Amy Attaway, have no plans to leave Kansas City for the foreseeable future.

He was officially a member of the artistic staff at the MET and later performed a similar function with the Living Room. And he recently assumed the artistic directorship of Kokopelli Theatre, a company he worked with in Anchorage, Alaska. The company is now based in Kansas City and Attaway intends to establish it as a touring company. If all goes according to plans, its first show to hit the road will be Chainsaw.

Bottom line: Attaway has become an influential player in the Kansas City theater community.

And he’s not done with acting. He and Scott Cordes may revive Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain, a gritty two-character drama about Chicago cops they first performed for Central Standard Theatre in 2011. (“There aren’t a lot of guys in this town . . . who come off as real men,” he said.) And at the time of this interview he was hoping to perform Shel Silverstein’s The Devil and Billy Markham sometime in October.

“It has to be a project I really want to do,” Attaway said.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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