Robbie Simpson portrays the protagonist, Pip, with such consistency and confidence. Simpson plays off of his fellow actors very well no matter the part they’re playing at the moment. The audience can see Pip’s growth as an individual throughout the course of the play thanks to Simpson’s tremendous acting skills. His emotional performance is believable.
As Pip, Robbie Simpson returns to Syracuse where he earned his BFA in Acting from the University’s Drama Department. His onstage work is laudatory. Simpson smoothly adjusts dialect and accent as Pip rises through the ranks of society. He physically shifts as well, progressing from an impressionable 7-year-old boy to a wiser, world-weary thirty-something who recognizes the redemptive power of forgiveness.
It’s loud in Phoebe’s Restaurant coffee lounge, with Syracuse University Department of Drama students congregating and friends laughing over lattes and teas. It’s loud, but Drama alumnus Robbie Simpson, who met with me right out of an hours-long rehearsal, is so compelling and thoughtful that the noise doesn’t seem to matter. He has an easy grace that presents itself onstage and off – which benefits him greatly in Syracuse Stage’s latest production.SU Drama Room ServiceRobbie Simpson (behind) in the Syracuse University Department of Drama’s production of “Room Service” in 2010.Michael G. Davis | Syracuse Stage Simpson, who graduated from the Department of Drama in 2011, portrays iconic Charles Dickens character Pip in the theatrical adaptation of the classic novel “Great Expectations,” playing at Syracuse Stage through Nov. 6.Aging 25 years during the course of the play, Pip transforms from orphan child to blacksmith apprentice to wealthy young gentleman. Though Simpson is in his late 20s, he inhabits an interesting area between naïveté and wisdom, which well serves his character’s transition.And while he may not have grown up in Dickensian London, he said he experienced a lot of the same growth as Pip when he traveled from his hometown of West Springfield, Massachusetts to Syracuse for his undergraduate schooling.”Moving to Syracuse was the first time that took me out of the area where I grew up and saw the world in a different way,” he said. “That’s a lot of what Pip’s journey is. I think it’s a nice little gem that’s adding to my process in building this character.”Simpson attended the University of San Diego for graduate school and appeared in such productions at the USD-affiliated Old Globe Theater as “Pygmalion” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”Ralph Zito, Department of Drama chair and dialect coach for “Great Expectations,” worked with him when Simpson was a senior, and said he felt Simpson is uniquely qualified to tackle the role of Pip due to the young actor’s “transparency.””It’s evident looking at him as he’s working what’s going on for the character – the character’s inner life and emotional life are very close for Robbie,” Zito said. “I think if we look at the story of ‘Great Expectations’ and the story of Pip, those qualities match up.”Simpson approached his preparation for the role in a number of ways, including research and personal reflection.”When I get confused in the play or working on a scene that doesn’t quite make sense to me, I go straight back to the book and see how it was originally written,” he said. “But probably the biggest preparation was just drawing on me and my life experiences, what I’ve gone through. I think everyone can relate to [Pip’s] story, which is why it’s still being told today.”Ultimately, Simpson said, the chance to be back where he learned to hone his acting is an exciting experience.”I spent four years here and essentially grew up here,” he said. “It’s a lot of coming into your own when you’re an undergrad, so there are so many positive memories associated with the city and this program. I’m so happy to be back.”Zito said having a Department of Drama graduate return to perform at Syracuse Stage will be beneficial for current theater students.”The emotional resonance of having an alum return to play a lead role in a professional production – this is kind of great,” he said. “I’m hoping that our currently enrolled students will see the very long arc of training. Bringing back alumni that have had further training gives students the perspective that being an artist is a lifetime endeavor.”At the end of our interview, two students sitting across from us turn to Simpson and excitedly ask, “Are you the guy that used to go here?” He looks at me, laughs and nods as he stays behind to talk to them.