In the late 1990s through the turn of this century, Severt Philleo entertained Missoula audiences with Marlene Dietrich impressions, theater performances and evenings in drag singing with groups like the Jodi Marshall Trio. He was the local celebrity in every way. In fact, for four straight years Philleo won the Indy’s Best of Missoula award for Best Actor and Best Actress.
Even when not technically performing on stage, Philleo remained the center of attention, often decked out in dapper suits or elegant dresses at private parties and local watering holes. In 2000 Philleo moved to his hometown of Polson to take care of his mother, eventually inheriting her house when she died. In 2004, he moved to Palm Springs, Fla. and recently began selling wellness products with Arbonne International—though he still loves his cigarettes and bourbon.
Philleo returns to Missoula this week for a Crystal Theatre benefit performance of “A Wilde Night with Severt Philleo,” a staged reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The 1997 play by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) deals with Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (aka “Bosie”), which led to charges of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” and his subsequent imprisonment and downfall. Philleo plays Douglas while the Montana Rep’s artistic director, Greg Johnson, plays Wilde. A who’s who of Missoula actors fills out the rest of the cast.
“Originally Greg wanted me to play Oscar Wilde and it was like, there’s no way,” says Philleo. “I’m not intelligent enough, I’m not a literati. I don’t understand why we have to make perfect sentences and not split infinitives.” On the other hand, Philleo says he understands his character’s enthrallment with Wilde.
“You have to imagine the idea of being with someone who you just sit with and love what’s coming out of their mouth,” he says. “The text—the language—is beautiful. It’s like a cucumber sandwich: crusts definitely cut off, spread with rich goat cheese and seasoned with white pepper and pickled red onions. This is my Romeo and Juliet right here. It is! It really does follow star crossed lovers.”
And with that comparison in mind, the play’s a tragedy, too, showing how intolerance leads to destruction.
“Oscar Wilde was an Irishman who just happened to be brilliant,” says Philleo. “He went to Oxford, wrote beautiful plays and, through unwitting foibles, was condemned to die. It goes beyond tolerance. One of my lines is, ‘I have made a point of appearing with Oscar Wilde in many public restaurants. I shall continue to do so whenever I choose and with whom I choose.’”
Last Saturday, Philleo arrived at Bernice’s Bakery sporting a stylish faux-leopard cuffed hat and a silver-buttoned retro jacket. The outer layer hid the fact that he still had on his pajama top underneath and, he admitted, was hung over from his first night back in Missoula.
“I saw the most wonderful shoes last night,” he says. “In Missoula! And I got to see the suffragettes. The most beautiful girls in the world are right here.” The International Women’s Day parade coupled with three big rock shows and the First Friday Art Walk had turned downtown into a madhouse. But Philleo’s first night back was bittersweet. In the James Bar men’s bathroom, Philleo noticed a blemish on his cheek and pulled some facial powder from his bag to fix it.
“And here I was in the men’s room shuffling through this bag, which in Montana could look like a purse, and I’ve got a big diamond brooch on,” he says laughing wildly. “And this fellow walks in and he yells, ‘Men’s room!’ And I looked up, like, ‘Of course, you’re absolutely right. You think I’m Shirley MacClaine!’”
But the situation later at the Union Club was less comical. Philleo was reminiscing with a Salish-Kootenai woman about Polson when a drunken man took a punch at his face.
“We had been having a great time talking to each other,” he says. “And then this little man—who was not so little, but I put him in my mind as little because he really frightened me—started an altercation while I was talking to a lady. And maybe he didn’t think she was a lady or I was a gentleman. But that is what is so offensive.”
Despite these incidents, Philleo says he loves being back in Missoula. And he believes this play delivers a message that will resonate more with Missoula audiences familiar with some intolerance, whereas in L.A. or New York the topic might be dismissed as merely “lovely.”
But it’s not just a play about tolerance. It’s about the tragedies and complexities of love and family. Douglas’ desire to take revenge on his father, the powerful Marquess of Queensbury, ultimately results in Wilde’s imprisonment. And when Wilde writes in a poem, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” Douglas asks him the meaning. Wilde retorts, “You ought to know.” But despite their dysfunctional relationship that was sometimes cruel but always passionate, Douglas and Wilde loved each other and that, Philleo says, is also the point.
“Everyone encouraged Oscar to leave England, but it was his home. And this is my home,” he says. “But we have to reassess the way that we treat each other. Open your mind, read some Oscar Wilde, put a flower in your lapel, wear a diamond brooch, kiss your wife and say, ‘I love you.’ Honestly, it is about that. This play is cucumber sandwiches and silver cigarette cases and it’s a courtroom drama. But if you really listen to it, it’s a bunch of people crying out saying, ‘Let me speak. Let me have my life.’”
The reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde stages at the Crystal Theatre Friday, March 13, and Saturday, March 14, at 8 PM. $20.