It’s almost a truism that writers have unhappy childhoods. Writers from Eugene O’Neil to Pat Conroy have found their dysfunctional families to be fertile ground for their art, often achieving their greatest success by exploring their early life traumas. Emile Adams’ play, I Wish You Actually Liked Me (and Other Familial Impossibilities) which was produced by Heller Theatre last weekend covers this ground as well. The play in performance reveals Adams’ promise as a writer, as well as her current limitations.
The play begins by introducing us to Olive and Ben, ably portrayed by MacKenzie Bryan and Nick Lutke, and setting the scene, a Christmas gathering of our not-so-happy family. The siblings share jokes and bourbon as their way of coping with the fact they clearly do not want to be there. It’s funny and does a nice job of revealing character, as in fact all their shared scenes do. Olive and Ben are fleshed out characters, sympathetic, with clear motivations, and their relationship is believable and affecting.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other characters. The play keeps the other characters at a distance, only showing surfaces, and often confining them to negative stereotypes. Father is weak, pathetically ineffectual, though Bryan Zuege is effective in eliciting some sympathy for the character. George Romero’s stepmother is a cluster of cliché’s, and I'm not sure the script gives her many alternatives. Patrick Hobbs has little to do as the eccentric uncle other than be gay. The playwright manipulates the audience into feeling about them the same way Olive feels. We have no choice except to see them through the lens of Olive’s pain.
As someone who passionately believes that art should, and in fact invariably does, reflect the artist’s life, I hesitate to critique a work so obviously drawn from raw experience. However, the rawness is exactly what I find so problematic about I Wish . . . . Not that it portrays life as unpleasant. That’s a given. No, my problem is that its honesty comes from a single perspective and it denies other perspectives a voice. If art is a work of imagination, then the playwright’s job is to imagine her characters as fully formed human beings. Every character, potentially, has a story in the same way that every person does. A play that only tells one story, especially if that story is the playwright’s, tends to hijack the audience’s emotions instead of provoking them. Personally, I always actively resist such hijacking, which made Olive’s long monolog at the end of the play an unemotional moment, for me, just the opposite of what was intended.
Both the play and the production have a number of very positive things going for them. The story takes place in four distinct locations, but the set allowed that to happen seamlessly on Henthorne’s small stage, and without set changes. The use of the younger children as sort of spectral presences throughout the play, though somewhat awkward in places, is a strong positive, and helped immeasurably by Katie Swanston, Eliot Middlebrook, and Mya Safary, the three fine young actors who play the younger version of the siblings. The structure of the story flows just about perfectly, with clear but unobtrusive exposition, rising conflict, climactic scene at the end of the first act, building to the big confrontation at the end, and finally a dénouement that tries to do a little of what I’ve talked about in the last two paragraphs—give some of these other characters a voice and perspective that doesn’t come from Olive. It’s what the play needs, and it makes a step in the right direction.
In my review of Mothers and Sons I remarked that drama is built on conflict, relationship, and mystery (or the desire to know how the story’s going to turn out). I Wish . . . has these elements, to its credit. From a larger perspective, theatre (life?) is composed of three elements as well, though these are of a more . . . spiritual . . . nature. Creativity, honesty, and community are my own holy trinity of values that make a play compelling, moving. They work in tension with each other, and too much focus on one inevitably leads to imbalances in the other two. Adams has written a very honest piece. The failure to give other characters a voice isn’t a failure of honesty, but of creativity, of not imagining others as fully as we know ourselves. And to some extent, a failure of community. Art provokes, but doesn’t manipulate. (Others may disagree of course, lots of songs, movies, etc. manipulate. To the extent they do, I regard them as failing as art.) Adams clearly has talent, and from the evidence here and from my familiarity with her previous work, I suspect she will harness that talent to more satisfying pieces in the future.
Those uptight near-normals from Odeum and Nightingale have made another boring trailer for the show with the silly name. Watch at your own risk.
Susan Apker and I had sandwiches at the Corner Café, and talked about Heller Theatre’s renewed focus on home grown writers and original work. Heller is putting its money where its mouth is, reaching out to local writers with both opportunities for production and financial remuneration.
FRANK: So Susan, talk a little about where this emphasis on original work comes from.
SUSAN: When we reinvented ourselves a few years ago, we wanted to go back to the roots of Heller Theatre, which did a lot more local, original works in its earlier incarnation. We decided we wanted to support local artists, and get back to producing full length plays written by Tulsa writers. We’ve obviously been doing the Shorts for a few years now. That had a predecessor in that there used to be a playwriting group that met and supported each other at Heller.
FRANK: Before my time.
SUSAN: Well, they produced short play evenings. And when that went away Heller started a nationwide full length play contest, which grew too big for its britches basically.
FRANK: We ended up getting hundreds of entries, no one had time to read them all.
SUSAN: So just after the move to Henthorne, we started up the Shorts Festival. So Heller has always supported new writers, we’re just trying to expand on that. Our five year plan is to add a full length original play every season, and to have a 50% original season every year. Which we actually have this year and will next year as well, with one full length original, Shorts, and two published plays. I’m hoping that down the road, if we’re able to start producing five plays a year, that two of them would be full length originals. That’s in the ten year plan.
FRANK: You’re actually paying your writers for the full length plays, yes?
SUSAN: As a writer myself I firmly believe that the way to support burgeoning artists is to give them remuneration. I really deplore the attitude you sometimes find in this town that, “We’re giving them the privilege of having their play produced.” That makes me crazy. No, they’re giving us the privilege of producing their plays, and I think it’s incumbent on us to treat them as professionals. Giving them some kind of remuneration. Whether it’s as much as we’d give a published playwright? That can be determined individually, but most of the time it is.
FRANK: Heller recently announced a playwright in residence program, and just last week picked the recipient of that award. This is the first time I’ve heard a group in Tulsa doing anything like that. Who was selected for that, and what were the considerations that led the board to choose him?
FRANK: What does the position involve?
SUSAN: In the fall he will be running a workshop for Tulsa writers who are interested, and in the Spring he will workshop his new play and we’ll produce it in May.
FRANK: Will he be directing it?
SUSAN: No, we’ll have someone else directing. We have several people with Heller that have experience in working with and developing new works.
FRANK: You also write, and have a history in creating new work, talk a little about how you started out writing plays.
SUSAN: About 7 or 8 years ago, a friend of mine and I started writing back and forth, showing each other our work. I started submitting what I’d written to playwriting festivals around the country, and some of the things I wrote started getting accepted. So that was very exciting. Then I started to go see some of them, and realized that getting accepted did not mean it was good. Or that the festival was good (laughs). So I continued to write and try to improve my writing. And now I’ve had plays produced from Hawaii to Canada. I’m hoping soon to start writing my first full length play. Well, actually I’ve written a full length play, but when I submitted it to Heller anonymously, it was described as “something akin to an afterschool special.” (laughs) So I just decided I didn’t need to admit that I wrote it! I’m just going to keep working.
FRANK: How many of your plays have been performed outside of Tulsa?
SUSAN: Four, I think. One that’s been performed half a dozen times around the country. It will have its Tulsa premiere in June, in the show with Dan.
FRANK: Switching back to Heller, you have an original play opening this weekend, Emile Adams’ I Wish You Actually Liked Me, and Other Familial Impossibilities. I’m curious, how did Emile’s play get chosen for production by Heller?
SUSAN: Several of the board members saw it produced last year and loved it, and said that we needed to give it a place where it can be done again. So we put it into the season.
FRANK: And how did you decide on Laura Skoch to direct?
SUSAN: Laura has experience in working with new work, quite a bit in New York. Particularly from an actor’s standpoint has worked lots of original works, working with writers who are just putting their plays together. We decided it would be a perfect match.
FRANK: I can see why. I was very impressed with Laura when I interviewed her and Emile. And this is being performed where?
SUSAN: It’s going to be at Henthorne. Four days, Thursday through Sunday, May 19-22. 7:30 Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 pm on Sunday.
FRANK: And how is it being back at Henthorne?
SUSAN: We love being back at Henthorne, we love working with Erin and Melissa. They’re very supportive of us, so it’s a great boon to be over there. We’re also looking at the Nightingale Theatre as possibly the permanent home for the Shorts Festival. It draws a different crowd, might be a better fit. We’re always happy working closely with John and the gang over there as well.
And speaking of the Shorts Festival, the winners were announced this week, and they are as follows:
Working Title--Charlie Water and Luke Thompson
The Electrician - Donny Bailey
Roommates - Tess Paden
Attention - David Blakely
Hawthorne Sisters, Three - Hunter Cates
Break A Leg - Daniel Hitzman
That Awkward Moment - Lindsey Lewis
The Shorts perform 15, 16, and 17 of July, at the Nightingale Theatre, Emile’s play this weekend, and David Blakely’s play next May. Good to see Heller encouraging local writers.
Mothers and Sons, a 2014 play by Terrence McNally, is the new ATC production, running one more weekend in the Williams at the PAC. It’s an extremely well put together show, with top notch actors, a professional quality set, and a script written by one of America’ greatest living playwrights. It takes as its subject the radical changes that have taken place in this country in the area of LGBT rights, particularly as those relate to gay marriage, changes practically unthinkable even 8 years ago, much less the 16 years since McNally wrote Andre’s Mother. Mothers and Sons draws upon that earlier play for its characters and their relationships.
The events of the two plays reflect the broader events taking place in the gay community at large over that time period. Andre’s Mother creates its drama from the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s, and the fear and shame associated with homosexuality among some segments of society during that time. The newer play has as its backdrop the legalization of gay marriage, the acceptance of gay adoption, and the slow but growing acceptance of LGBT lifestyles among ‘straight’ communities.
Lisa Wilson plays Katharine, a resentful and bitter mother whose grown son has died of AIDS 20 years before, and who has now, for the first time, come to New York to visit her son’s former partner, Cal, played by Sterling McHan. Ms. Wilson is a powerful actress onstage, and her character drives the action through most of the evening. She’s not particularly likable, in fact just the opposite, but the dialogue moves along at a rapid pace, and with just enough humor to keep the audience engaged through the often prickly conversation.
Chad Oliverson, as Will, whom Cal has married in the interim, brightens things up considerably with his appearance. I was reminded that I don’t see enough local theatre when I realized I had never seen Oliverson onstage before. He’s marvelous pretty much every second. He has the gift that great theatre actors have of being able to communicate exactly what he’s feeling just by changing his posture, or turning his head. In addition, he knows that humor need never be far away no matter what the situation or emotion is being dealt with onstage.
McHan is skilled and gives us an honest portrayal. But his performance of the somewhat mawkish Cal would have benefited from exploring the humorous side of that character (what makes Cal laugh?), and by fighting back a little more and a little earlier against Katharine’s constant barbs and accusations. In fact, one of my problems with the play is that it presents us with a clear hero/villain dichotomy, with Wilson emphasizing every negative aspect of Katharine and McHan all too often willing to play the martyr. The joys of not liking the bully wear thin after awhile, another reason why the scenes with Will are such a welcome break. This problem is not Mr. McHan’s alone; the script ties his hands to a great extent.
And that brings me to my final issue with the play. It feels like McNally is more interested in chronicling the changes that have taken place in society than creating compelling theatre. Just as music is composed of melody, harmony, and rhythm, drama is composed of conflict, relationship, and mystery (what’s going to happen). The central conflict of the play could be summed up as whether Katharine and Cal are going to come to some sort of mutual respect (reconciliation isn’t the right word, as they’ve never been conciliatory). But one, that’s a little vague, and two, since the issue is pretty much solely up to Katharine, and we don’t like her anyway, we don’t have too much invested in how that’s going to turn out. When it does come to the conclusion, it feels too much like a cheat, not an earned resolution, but one imposed by the playwright because, well, because it has to end somehow. McNally has instead chosen to focus on these characters as instances of the larger movement in society, a movement he has written about throughout his long and distinguished career.
Terrence McNally is one of our great playwrights, and he knows how to create characters and dialogue. And ATC has assembled a talented team of actors and designers who, along with director Nora Sweeney, have put together a solid, polished evening of theatre, though perhaps a play more to be admired than loved, even as its heart is so clearly in the right place.
Emile Adams and Laura Skoch met me at the Phoenix the other day and we talked about Heller’s upcoming show I Wish You Actually Liked Me (and other Familial Impossibilities). Laura’s directing Emile’s script, and I was interested in the fact that this young playwright is being produced by an established group in town, and not only that, but that this will be the second time the show has had a mainstage production, this time opening at Henthorne and performing May 19, 20, and 21 at 7:30PM and May 22 at 2:00PM.
FRANK: So Emile, this show’s been produced in Tulsa once before.
EMILE: It has.
EMILE: I do have a semi-theatre company, Effervescent Productions. I call it semi because we don’t have a bank account or a theater or anything to go with it, but we try to do a show every year. Last year it was this show, which was part of Fringe, and Laura did not see it--
FRANK: That was my next question.
EMILE:--which I am thrilled about. Which means it’s going to be two totally separate shows. I’m just very excited about that.
FRANK: Are there differences from the first production? In tone, or in cast, what impresses you as differences between the two productions?
EMILE: Well, I have not been as directly involved this time. I came to auditions and the first read through, but the only other rehearsal I’ll have been to is tonight.
FRANK: That’s surprising.
EMILE: I’ve been getting updates from Laura, so it’s not like I’ve been completely removed. From what I could tell from the first read, there’s a different tone, but not to a huge degree. It’s hard to be too different, due to the material. It’s about an abusive family, but it’s funny . . . It’s always going to be a dark comedy. Last time we leaned more towards the comedy because that’s . . . how I roll . . . but I was the director last time.
FRANK: Let’s talk about the process. Laura, Emile may not have been at rehearsals, but obviously you’ve communicated. Talk a little bit about how that process has gone. Also, if you’ve ever done that, either as an actor or director, working directly with the playwright.
LAURA: Many, many times as an actor, working on an original production. That was half of the work I did in New York, working with new plays and playwrights. I’m very used to the collaborative work, having respect for the playwright’s words, but being able to say, “This line isn’t fitting in my mouth right, what can I do about that?” Love it. But as a director I haven’t done it before. It was interesting to hear from Emile that she’d done lots of rewrites and she was comfortable with where the play was, and I think the play’s great, I didn’t feel I needed to do much with it. I was willing to work either way, either having her at rehearsals or not, but she’s involved in another project right now, so it was like, “If we hit any walls, I’ll write to you with suggestions.” Sometimes we discussed lines that weren’t working or didn’t make sense to us. I’ll send an email and she’ll either approve the change or say no, keep it.
EMILE: It’s probably been about 50-50 on that. There was a couple of times I really wanted to keep the line, but most of the time I tried to be open to the suggestions. I’m trying to let go of my writing more. It’s a flaw that I hold on very tightly, I’m trying to train myself to be more open.
LAURA: I think it’s a very different process, if we were to rework the play with a dramaturg involved . . . because that’s done with the intent of reshaping the script. It’s where the playwright comes in and says, “This is a living being, I want to see where it goes with other hands, working together.” Where this, Emile is comfortable where it is, so my job is to interpret the play as it is.
FRANK: I’m completely unfamiliar with your history. Talk a little bit about what you’ve done and where.
LAURA: I’m from Tulsa, I left and got a BFA in acting at USC. Then I became an itinerant actor, basically a drifter, joining up with different theatre communities--
FRANK: Making your living as an actor?
LAURA: Oh gosh no. No no no, I did everything. I worked in California for awhile, and Colorado, and Florida, and Chicago. And ended up in New York, I was just meaning to pass through, be there for 3 months and then go to Austin to start a theatre company with some friends, and it turned into 17 years. In New York I started out with the Barrish group, then went back and got an MFA at Columbia. I started working a lot downtown, the new works theatre scene.
FRANK: Quite a history. And now you’re back here?
LAURA: Well, I met this wonderful guy, and all of a sudden we had twins, and Tulsa seemed like a good place to go when you have babies.
FRANK: How long have you been in town?
LAURA: Two years.
FRANK: And who have you worked with here?
LAURA: I did Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike and 39 Steps.
FRANK: Both great shows.
LAURA: And the Heller Shorts, I directed George’s (Romero) and Nick Lutke’s play.
FRANK: Another great show. And Nick is in this one, yes? As the brother, yes? Will?
EMILE: Ben. The character’s name is Ben. (laughs)
FRANK: And I want to get to that in a second. Ok, I haven’t read this play, which puts me at a disadvantage, but instead of just talking about the plot, I’d like you to describe the play by talking about the main characters. Tell me who they are.
LAURA: The main character is Olive, and she is a young woman who’s come home for Christmas holidays. Advisedly or inadvisably . . . home is a dangerous place to be. Her father and stepmother, it’s never been a happy place, for her. Everybody’s back together, uncle, brother, sister, step mother, half sister . . . All the tinder is there for a fire to start at any moment. With a lot of alcohol keeping it together as much as possible until it all explodes.
FRANK: All right, I want you to bring up one of your actors so we can focus on him for a second, and so you don’t have to pick, I’m just going to pick at random. Who’s the actor playing the father.
LAURA: His name is Bryne Zuege.
EMILE: I fought for Bryne.
FRANK: Good, I picked lucky.
LAURA: He’s a really sweet guy. He hasn’t had a major role since high school, so it’s new to him, but he’s jumped in with both feet.
EMILE: At the auditions, we had several people come in and do brilliant auditions. But Bryne just totally had the dad down. I said “Please Laura, I will not interfere with anyone else if you just let me have Brian. Please.” So I hope he’s working out (laughs). I felt very strongly that he was the guy this time. Last time it was played by Craig (Walter).
FRANK: Really? That’s so wonderful that you are getting talented people like that to work with.
EMILE: I got lucky.
FRANK: So. About the play. Does art reflect life?
EMILE: Art of course reflects life. Are always reflects life.
FRANK: Yeah? Talk about that.
I was hoping to get my interview with Emile Adams and Laura Skoch up before I left town for the weekend, but it is not to be, so that's coming early next week, still in time their opening. Emile's play with the really long name is going up on the 19th iirc, directed by Laura, and these are two intriguing people. Emile actually has two plays in rehearsal at the moment, something that Shakespeare hardly ever manages in this town, which is probably why he's been so bitchy to her lately. And if you don't know Laura, I can't wait to introduce you. A theatre vet, multi-skilled, only in town about a year, and is a valuable addition to our local scene.
I also will be talking a little about Heller putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to encouraging local writers. (Disclosure: I've applied for the playwright in residence position they've announced, which is due to be awarded next week I think.) Also, I want to write something about play selection among local groups, which relates to the whole reviewer issue that's the hot topic lately. And a couple of other things as well. Lots going on lately.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre