Joseph Palka has had “a storied life.”
The Gaithersburg-based actor, starring alongside Chris Stinson and Matthew Vaky in Quotidian Theatre Company’s (QTC) production of “Port Authority” at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, has been a radio personality, a high school teacher, a playwright and a “Mr. Mom” as well as a TV, movie and stage actor.
“I always wanted to put on a show,” said Palka, 67, who started acting in 1977, in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Pennsylvania’s Erie Playhouse. “What informs my life’s journey as an actor has been my experience in all walks of life.”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Palka earned a bachelor of arts degree in speech and communications from Edinboro College (now Edinboro University) in western Pennsylvania, then traveled the country as a disc jockey before ending up in the D.C. area in 1985 to work for WMAL— where his wife, Fox 5’s Sue Palka, started her own career in broadcasting.
The show he’s putting on right now is a story of lost loves and missed opportunities, written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and directed by QTC artistic director Jack Sbarbori. Palka plays Joe, an elderly man who receives a mysterious package and reflects on his life, a lost love and what might have been. Telling the story of three Dublin men at varying stages of life, “Port Authority” is a three-hander in which the actors don’t play off each other, but rather take the stage individually to tell their stories and illustrate basic truths about humanity — truths Palka finds universal.
“I’m a western Pennsylvania boy, and in the Conor McPherson canon, his characters could be from Pittsburgh: they just happen to be from Ireland,” he said, adding that he has “always loved the Irish writers; Shaw and Joyce. I’m fascinated by them. There’s rarely an easy plot to follow, and Conor McPherson presents his challenges, too.”
The biggest challenge? Working alongside two actors Palka likes and admires, without actually sharing scenes. Like Matthew Vaky, who was born in D.C., but grew up mostly in Latin America, where his dad was posted in the civil service.
“I don’t really have a ‘home base,’” said Vaky. “I got to see a lot of stuff, a lot of inequities, as well — it was very interesting. It gave me a perspective on people, and differences.” It also gave him a passion for theatre.
“Theatre is a great way to meet people when you’re always moving,” he said. “That’s how I got into it as a kid.” He started performing with a youth group in Colombia, graduated from high school early to join a touring company, and performed at schools and prisons across the U.S., which left him determined to act as a career. After earning bachelor and master of fine arts degrees in theatre from Carnegie Mellon University, then a master’s in teaching from the College of Saint Catherine (now St. Catherine’s University) in St. Paul, he lived in Minnesota for 25 years — teaching, directing and acting before coming to the D.C. area 10 years ago.
“I was cast in ‘The Birds’ a few years ago,” said Vaky, recalling his first production with QTC in 2013, in a play McPherson adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story. “And I went from that to ‘The Night Alive.’ Conor McPherson is such a great writer; I hadn’t read much of his stuff before I came here, but he has a mix of warm, wonderful people and…not! They’re all flawed in such a human way.”
The three characters in “Port Authority,” he said, are particularly interesting. “We never interact, but there’s a commonality to the three of us,” said Vaky, who plays middle-aged Dermot. “We’re different levels of society, but we all have this sadness and this beauty in us. We’re all just wonderfully flawed.”
For Vaky, the tone of the play is what makes it memorable — along with McPherson’s nuanced writing. “When you get into it, it’s like that little detail that makes it really come alive,” he said. “It’s like people really talking, and you’re interested in what’s going to happen.”
The third person talking in “Port Authority” is a young man called Kevin, who’s leaving home for the first time. Chris Stinson, who plays Kevin, isn’t actually far from home at all. “I guess I’m sort of a local boy; I grew up in Virginia and Maryland and now I live in D.C.,” said Stinson, 32. “I started acting in my junior year of high school and I’ve been doing it, basically, ever since.” A professional actor since 2011, Stinson went to Pennsylvania State University and holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in history, “two things I very much enjoy.”
But acting is his jam.
“This will be my third show with Quotidian,” said Stinson, who has performed at Olney Theatre Center, Imagination Stage, the Keegan Theatre and The Kennedy Center and has a soft spot for the D.C. theatre scene.
“It’s a wonderful community that has really embraced me with open arms,” he said. “I get to do some really great work that doesn’t get done anywhere else — and I think Conor McPherson is a great example of that.”
McPherson is a playwright QTC has returned to again and again, since first staging his play “The Weir” in 2004. The 48-year-old playwright, screenwriter and director was named “the finest playwright of his generation” by the New York Times, and shares what has been described as “a unique understanding of the human condition” with Quotidian’s cornerstone playwrights, Anton Chekhov and Horton Foote.
“Quotidian really has a passion for these personal, intimate stories,” observed Stinson. “Conor McPherson is such a master of words, trying to express the inexpressible.”
Stinson’s first QTC show was Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” followed by McPherson’s “This Lime Tree Bower” in 2015, another play in which three Irishmen give monologues about life directly to the audience.
“They’re all telling stories that interconnect with one another,” he recalled, “deeply funny and sad. So, when Jack Sbarbori reached out to me about doing ‘Port Authority,’ the chance to jump back into Conor McPherson world was hard to turn down. I love the way he writes.”
And he loves the opportunity to engage with the audience on such a deep level. “It’s just you and the audience, and you’re relaying some personal, funny insightful things,” he said. “The audience is your scene partner, if you will. And it’s unique.”
Quotidian Theatre’s production of Conor McPherson’s “Port Authority” runs through Nov. 17 at The Writers Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Performances start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $35, with discounts for seniors, students, groups and Writer’s Center members. Call 301-816-1023 or visit www.quotidiantheatre.org.