Feb 19, 2012
Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain has ties to Sacramento stages
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Jessica Chastain, up for a supporting-actress Oscar for her performance in “The Help,” once acted on Sacramento stages.

Chastain was not available for comment. But her local ties must be acknowledged regardless. This is Sacramento, which claims Tom Hanks because he spent a few years here in the 1970s.

A one-time Sacramento Shakespeare Festival performer, Chastain, now in her early 30s (reports of her exact age vary), is the most celebrated actor to emerge from Sacramento since Hanks. Much of that celebration occurred in the past year, when the Juilliard-trained actress appeared in several prominent films.

Vying at the Oscars for her “Help” performance as ostracized 1960s Southern housewife Celia Foote, Chastain might as easily have been nominated for “The Tree of Life” or “Take Shelter,” in which she played, and lent great complexity to, loving wives of troubled men.

In the mid- to late 1990s, Chastain’s métier was Sacramento community theater. She appeared twice opposite John Lamb, who subsequently became a fixture at Sacramento’s professional B Street Theatre. Lamb played Claudio to Chastain’s Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing” for the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, and starred with her in the romantic drama “Seascape With Sharks and Dancer,” produced by the since- disbanded T Street Players.

“She was probably around 19, but she just got it,” Lamb, 42, said of Chastain. “She was just one of those actors who was very intuitive. She was fun to be onstage with. She was always present and focused, and always acting in pursuit of her character’s objective.”

Chastain also was a risktaker, said veteran Sacramento stage and film actor Eric Wheeler, 51. He once played Chastain’s father in “A Christmas Carol.” He first encountered her at an audition for the Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet.”

“The first time we met, she said, ‘Would you mind if I kiss you?’ ” Wheeler recalled with a laugh.

He was up for Claudius and Chastain for Ophelia. Chastain believed Ophelia kissing Claudius would help illustrate that Ophelia was coming unglued, Wheeler said.

Wheeler agreed to the kiss. He didn’t get the part, and doesn’t recall if Chastain did, either, but said of the actress: “She knew how to make an audition something special.”

Los Angeles actor and former Sacramentan Brian Rivera, 35, appeared in several shows with Chastain (he was Benedick in that “Much Ado” production), and counted her among a group of theatrical pals who hung out between performances. He, like Lamb and Wheeler, is not surprised by her success.

“She’s one of the most ambitious people I know – a real go-getter,” Rivera said. She was among the first in their group to “broaden her horizons,” he said, by auditioning and winning the role of Juliet in a 1998 production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Palo Alto’s professional TheaterWorks company. Juilliard followed.

Before she was an Oscar nominee, Chastain was an Eleanor McClatchy Theatrical Award winner. She won a 1996 Elly community- theater award for her performance in T Street Players’ “Scarecrow.”

Reviews of Chastain’s Sacramento performances ranged from good to glowing.

“Chastain’s is a showy, yet deceptively complex role, executed brilliantly,” then-Sacramento Bee critic Peter Haugen wrote about Chastain in “Seascapes With Shark and Dancer.”

Said Lamb of Chastain: “She left a mark, definitely, in the theater community.”

She left less of a mark at the Lucky Cafe, the venerable midtown diner where Chastain reportedly once waitressed.

Shown a photograph of Chastain, veteran prep cook and dishwasher John Patalon said he “vaguely” recognized her.

“She’s not in trouble, is she?” Patalon asked, eyes twinkling.

Patalon said he wished he remembered her better, but he has “probably seen a hundred servers” in his 16 years at the diner.

Is he excited a one-time cafe employee is up for an Oscar?

“She’s doing better than I am,” he said with a laugh.