Characters in ‘Six Degrees’ look for middle ground

Since someone told Kevin Bacon in 1994 that he knew everyone, the Six Degrees of Separation phenomenon has become a film, game, organization and a play. John Guare’s Obie-winning play “Six Degrees of Separation” takes to the stage Jan. 10 to Feb. 15 at The Old Globe. Directed by Trip Cullman, the play stars Broadway veteran and Tony Award-winning actress Karen Ziemba in the title role of Ouisa.

“Six Degrees” is about the high-class Kittredge family who lives in New York City and works hard at maintaining their social status. When an injured stranger shows up at their door while they are entertaining and claims to be a friend of one of their children, they let him in. At first they are charmed by this multi-faceted young man, but soon family members are not only questioning who he is, but their own identities and what they are really all about.

UCSD alumni Samuel Stricklen plays the role of the stranger, Paul. His work includes international and national productions as well as La Jolla Playhouse’s “Victor/Victoria,” “Phantom,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Tulane Summer.” Stricklen understands the challenge he faces as a lead character in what is basically an ensemble piece.

“Paul lives in his own world and although everyone around him has their opinion about him, he has no outside eye,” Stricklen said. “He’s very much the antagonist and it’s fascinating to see the effect he has on others. That’s part of the great thing about John Guare, the writer. Because even though the main players - Ouisa (Karen Ziemba), Flan (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Paul - are present, there are so many other characters in this play who may be on stage for only five minutes yet there’s a small play in each of their lines. The writing is that great.”

Working with a large ensemble cast can be a challenge for directors, but Stricklen found Cullman quite capable.

“He’s one of the most patient directors I’ve worked with and very good at talking with the actors,” Stricklen said. “One of the best things I’ve learned about acting is it’s not about finding things right there in the moment but about discovery, and Trip is open to actors trying things on their own. I really trusted his judgment.”

Stricklen has a good sense of his character, as he appeared in a few episodes of the 2006 TV series “Six Degrees.” Yet he’s still mystified by the universal theme of the play.

“It seems that no matter where you are, there are five people somehow related to you,” Stricklen said. “I was on Fifth Avenue in New York and eating next to a man who had a 17-year subscription to The Old Globe. He wanted to know all about this show, and we talked for quite a while.”

That universal theme of connection runs through “Six Degrees,” which offers extreme comedy as well as some dark moments as the story explores elements of race, class and sexuality. Stricklen also finds it full of imagination.

“That’s one of the things I enjoy about my character,” he said. “Paul goes where his imagination takes him in his search for his place in life. All of the characters in the play are trying to find the middle ground in their lives. I think that’s what audiences respond to in this play - to think about their own dreams and aspirations and what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”

Thomas Jay Ryan (Flan), Karen Ziemba (Ouisa) and Samuel Stricklen (Paul) star in The Old Globe’s ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ Craig Schwartz

‘Six Degrees of Separation’

  • Jan. 10 – Feb. 15
  • The Old Globe
  • 1363 Old Globe Way
  • $29-$66
  • (619) 234-5623