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Dual Roles

November 11, 2009

Sometimes a playwright is the best person to direct the staging of his work.

I recently asked several local dramatists whether they thought playwrights should direct their own plays. The question arose following a performance of the Magic Theatre's world premiere of Mrs. Whitney. John Kolvenbach, the play's author, also directs.

Kolvenbach's beautiful directing job somewhat caught me unawares. The last couple of productions I had experienced at the Magic Theatre that were directed by the people who had penned the scripts were far from impressive despite the star power of the auteurs. Bill Pullman's gimmicky Expedition 6 and David Mamet's rambling-shambolic Dr. Faustus left much to be desired from both writing and staging perspectives.

Of course, this issue isn't particular to the Magic. Most theater companies specializing in contemporary plays avoid putting dramatists in charge of rehearsals. All too often, the results are disappointing. The main criticism commonly levied against director-playwrights is that they are too close to their scripts, so they aren't ideally positioned to make them work onstage. Being responsible for the mise-en-scène also makes it difficult for authors to undertake rewrites during rehearsals.

You might equally argue the opposite: that playwrights, being intimately connected to their texts, are in the best possible place to bring their characters, stories, images, and themes to life. Edward Albee, for one, feels strongly about staging his own work, and often acquits himself well. "I like to direct the first productions of my plays, because I like an audience to see and hear what I did when I wrote my plays," he told a talkback audience in Denver in 1997.

Kolvenbach doesn't make a habit of directing his own work, though he helmed the world premiere of his drama, Fabuloso, at Cape Cod's Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2008. "As director, Kolvenbach keeps the choppily episodic momentum moving along merrily," the Boston Globe reviewer noted of his staging abilities.

The same could be said about Mrs. Whitney, the second in a pair of tangentially related works by the author currently playing in repertory at the Magic. (Artistic director Loretta Greco directs Goldfish, the other piece.) Kolvenbach's production, a bittersweet domestic comedy, marries rhythmic pacing and lively blocking with sensitive performances from the entire cast. The positive qualities of the staging make it possible to forgive the shortcomings of the writing — namely the use of narration, the dramatist's penchant for bad poetry consisting of quirky lists of ideas, and the schmaltzy denouement.

The play centers on the character of Margaret Whitney, a middle-aged, middle-class divorcée who lives alone. In the wake of her daughter's marriage and flight from the family nest, Margaret's deep and longstanding feelings of loneliness bubble uncontrollably to the surface of her being. Against her better judgment, she decides to go looking for her ex-husband, Tom, a ne'er-do-well she hasn't contacted in 20 years. Her desperate need for connection is such that even the discovery that he has remarried four times (and is busy fouling things up with wife number five when we first meet him) doesn't deter her from reinserting herself into his life. As is so often the case in human relationships, the heart generates emotions powerful enough to overrule the mind.

Mrs. Whitney feels pedantic as a text. Margaret delivers too many clunky, fourth-wall–breaking narrated passages in which she divulges her feelings to the audience. The characters spout their sensations with overbearing, pseudopoetic repetitiveness. "Your rightness, your morality, your judgment, your competence, your stiff spine, your quick knife," Tom eulogizes at one point about Margaret. At another, the two engage in similarly ripe repartee:

Tom: What if I've changed?

Margaret: I'll welcome it.

Tom: What if I haven't changed?

Margaret: Then I'll make allowances.

Tom: What if I'm old?

Margaret: I'll take comfort in that.

Tom: If I sag? If I stink? I'm tired?

Margaret: Join the club.

Tom: I'm forgetful. If I repeat myself?

Margaret: I'll smile and nod.

However, Kolvenbach's direction and the performances make the writing sing. The play glides along, even through the lengthy interscene blackouts where stagehands move worn couches and sideboards about the naturalistic (and aesthetically uninspiring) living-room environment. His decision to leave the actors onstage during the set changes if they're performing in adjacent scenes is a powerful one. There's something mesmerizing about watching the sparrow-framed yet emotionally strong Patricia Hodges, who plays Margaret, putter aimlessly in semidarkness while stuff happens around her. The shadows and shuffling bodies deftly serve to highlight the central character's loneliness.

Kolvenbach and his actors handle the timing of the play's many tragic-comic moments with arch suspense. When Charles Dean as Margaret's protective neighbor Francis threatens Rod Gnapp's Tom with a gun, we can't tell what will happen next. The tension onstage is wire-taut. And when Tom's long-suffering fifth wife, Louisa (a hilariously hamstrung Arwen Anderson), and college-aged son, Fin (played on the brink of testiness by Patrick Alparone), first meet Margaret, their surprise and incredulity propel the action without ever seeming forced. As a result of the seamless staging, it's difficult not to enjoy this theatrical ride.

Ultimately, asking my dramatist friends about whether playwrights should direct their own plays might be irrelevant. As local playwright-actor-director Mark Jackson recently wrote in an e-mail, "I think it depends on the individual. Should this playwright direct his own work? That is the question to ask, I think."

In the case of Kolvenbach, the answer is emphatically "yes."



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