in coversation with THERESA REBECK AND beth henley
Prior to the start of rehearsals, Literary Manager Lily Wolff had the privelge of reconnecting Crimes of the Heart Playwright Beth Henley and Director Theresa Rebeck, two luminaries of the American theatre and both award-winning playwrights. We are thrilled to share this excerpt of their fond phone call.
Theresa Rebeck: Hi Beth, this is Theresa Rebeck. Do you remember me?
Beth Henley: Of course I do!
TR: Oh, ok! We met so long ago. Carol [Kane, actor, "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"] introduced us, we had dinner. Oh god, it was like in 1990, I think. ’91?
BH: It was, it was. Oh man… That was a while ago. I’m so happy you’re directing this play. I’m flabbergasted. What were you thinking?!
TR: (Laughs) I’m thinking it’s a terrific play! I’m thrilled! Maybe I can explain to you the things I’ve been thinking about and then you can tell me if I’m out of my mind.
BH: (Laughs) I would love that.
TR: So, here’s what we did - because we felt like the play has achieved a, kind of, mythic or iconic status - it’s a slightly abstracted version of the set with slashes of red in places, like the door, the stairs… It’s like a perverse valentine image, sort of violent, but it’s a beautiful red. One of the things that we’ve been thinking about is that the play is very very funny, but it’s also very dark. I think I’ve seen versions of it that don’t quite plumb the depths of how dark some of your choices actually are.
BH: Yeah, people like to lean into the funny stuff.
TR: Yes. And we’d like to lean into both. Because it’s post-Me Too there’s a new consciousness about some of the darker aspects of the play. The window has been opened so you can really look at the grief and horror that surrounds those choices and actions. I always think that you have to leave blood on the floor anyway if you want to get a really good laugh. And by really acknowledging the darkness in your play, we can use that as a springboard towards the comedy. And that there’s room in Meg and in Lenny for a more contemporary awareness of this stuff, so that we can see the rise of knowledge in them. There’s a real shrewdness, especially in Meg. She knows a lot. She’s on her way to becoming somebody truly wise. Babe is Babe. But, Meg and Lenny are on their way to survival and, further than that, to life. I might - I was thinkin’ of haven’ that door on hinges and letting it open and close on its own. I’m a little curious about the possibility that the house is a little haunted-
BH: Oh, I love that, yeah!
TR: -by their inability to move on.
BH: I’m way on board with that. It’s in retrospect that I realized what a rage I was in when I wrote that play.
TR: Oh great! That’s great to know!
BH: Just an incredible rage. I mean it was kind of sublimated…There’s something about growing up with misogyny, not to mention bigotry…How limited your knowledge could be in the 60’s and 70’s, if you’re not a brainy person, like Babe, you’re just in the fishbowl of Hazlehurst [Mississippi, the setting of Crimes of the Heart], you don’t have a view of the world.
TR: Yes, that might be why I thought that door might need to be swingin’ open on ‘em. I think the universe has got to start saying to them, “Get out of the house. Get outta here.” And Alexander’s set is hot rather than warm. It’s not a cozy little house, it’s a little more disturbing than that.
BH: I’m so glad you’re directing. I love it.
TR: I like it too. Grateful for the opportunity. Obviously I’m still one of those people, I’m just glad to be telling stories. Have you directed yourself?
BH: I directed one of my own plays, Control Freaks, and I basically had a nervous breakdown. (Laughs) It was really challenging. Maybe if I were directing someone else’s play it wouldn’t have been as traumatizing. When did you start directing?
TR: Four years ago. And I started directing actually in film. I’d always wanted to do it. And I finally thought, I’m going to have to create my own opportunity because no-one’s going to help me. And my aunt, who I adored, left me a little bit of money and I decided, I’m going to use that money to make a movie. I had a play that I adapted that was a bit like Crimes of the Heart in a way, it was four people in a house - it was good! It came out like a Cassavetes movie, sort of…
BH: Oh I love Cassavetes…
TR: Me too. So I’m really proud of it.
BH: What is the name of it? I want to see it!
TR: You can get it online! You should watch it! It’s called “Poor Behavior.” It costs, like, six dollars. I always thought that was a great deal (laughs) And then I directed All My Sons at the Alley with their company and it was a really beautiful experience for me. They have such great resources and wonderful actors. And then after that, I directed a play by a friend of mine [Neena Beber] called A Foreign Body, about Roman Polanski getting a life-time achievement award and then the woman that he assaulted shows up. Most of it’s set in a hotel room, and her younger self sort of emerges from the furniture and the scenes from his movies sort of emerge, too. So, now, I really want to make that into a movie and I think it’s really a great time for it. People are really thinking about how they feel about work by artists who have done reprehensible things. And then, I directed one of my own plays, which really went fine. But, you’re right it’s much more overwhelming. Like, when you’re writing a play it’s just you in your head and your typewriter or your computer and that’s quite enough! But, sometimes I got too lonely. I did, I got too lonely.
BH: Yeah, that’s what I found.
TR: I did it for a long time and now I just need to be around people more. That’s why I like directing. And I love your play. I feel like it’s really fascinating and human. That’s the other thing I feel - like there’s such room to go into the surreal…I don’t know how surreal I’m gonna go yet, I want to see what you can do with this set. Sometimes I don’t quite know until I’m walkin’ around it. But, I really enjoy it and I’m glad to be doing this.
BH: Oh well I’m thrilled you are! I love it that it’s kind of morphing out of naturalism. Because it’s kind of like a dream play at this point, it’s so old! (Laughs) It was written right when the feminist movement was starting. That’s a really crucial element. That’s why it wasn’t quite right when they set the film in the 80’s, because it wasn’t on the cusp of the feminist movement like it’s meant to be in ’74. When people were just finding out that maybe this isn’t the way things should be.
Lily Wolff: Theresa, I’m curious, do you have an early memory of experiencing Crimes of the Heart for the first time?
TR: It was one of those moments in which it became clear to me that women could write plays. Because I grew up in Cincinnati and I’d go to see plays at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Student matinees. Playwrights were like gods to me.
TR: Tennessee Williams. And Arthur Miller. And Molière. Shakespeare. They were like gods, really, so it never even occurred to me that I could do that. And then I started seeing a few plays by women. And that was like a bolt to my heart. And so I remember that. Thinking, oh my god, maybe I could do that. Women can do this. I said to my mother, “I would like to be a playwright.” And she went white. Gray… It was the craziest thing she’d ever heard. And I thought, is this a crazy thing? Because now women are writing plays. So, Crimes of the Heart was very much in my consciousness after that. As was Wendy Wasserstein and Tina Howe and Marsha [Norman].
TR: And at the time we really thought, wow, these great women who have come before us have opened the door for us!
BH: Oh man…good luck!
TR: Yeah, but you guys were, at that moment, our leaders. Just the coolest of the cool. I remember seeing you once after I got out of college and I was just a wannabe playwright. You were working on something at New York Stage and Film. And I did, I had that kind of like, "wow…there’s Beth Henley" moment.
BH: Knock it off…
TR: And we really thought that things were moving. I was absolutely unprepared for the backlash. I think we all were. So, I had a great opening of innocence around Crimes of the Heart and Beth Henley and the idea of being female playwright. It really was significant to me. Little did we know that they were going to start hitting us on the head…
BH: I just weep when I see these young women designers and directors. When Crimes was first done there was no question of having woman direct it. There weren’t any. I mean, Emily Mann was around, but that was it.
TR: Well, things are moving. They are. But, boy, it’s hard. The other thing that’s happened in the theatre, especially in New York, is there’s a kind of bottle neck. There’s a hand-full of directors that are considered to be the ones you have to have. And I finally thought, I don’t want to be disempowered any more. I don’t want to hear that for a play to move ahead you have to have one of these ten directors. That’s not coherent, you know. So, I started directing myself.
BH: I think I’m too lazy to direct now. (Laughs)
TR: It’s a lot of work.
BH: It just took everything I had. You know. So, I love directors. I love when you see a director that keeps working full-tilt, that hasn’t gotten into that – just another job, you know….
LW: Would you both tell us about something you’re working on right now?
BH: I’m working on Lightning, which the Alley is going to be doing a reading of.
LW: On the 29th of April! And where are you in the process of developing that play?
BH: It’s about the hundredth draft. Four thousandth draft (laughs). New York Stage and Film did a reading of it. And then at the O’Neill I had three or four days to work on it and it got a staged reading. And I got to learn a lot from that, because theatre is in three dimensions. But, I’m still really exploring how to make it work. And this piece is so dynamic, it will be great to work on it again.
TR: I’m working on Crimes of the Heart… (laughs) And then after that I’m directing a new play by my friend Rob Ackerman. It’s called Dropping Gum Balls on Luke Wilson and it’s about the great documentation Errol Morris, he made “The Thin Blue Line” and the one he’s really known for is “The Fog of War”.
BH: “The Fog of War” oh, I love that one.
TR: It’s a documentary about a documentarian! And to support his work as a documentarian, he makes commercials sometimes. And it’s about this moment when he was making an AT&T commercial and the props person, who was my friend Rob, who’s a really wonderful playwright and supports himself by doing props for movies, had to drop gum balls (which represented connectivity) on this movie star. On Luke Wilson. And he hits him with one of them! So, that turns into Luke Wilson giving him the finger...
BH: Well, that’s what they’re paying Luke Wilson for, I guess!
TR: Right. And, so, then Errol Morris decides that he kind of likes what happens when the actor gets hit by the gum ball. It gets a reaction out of him that he thinks is really interesting. And it just kind of goes from there… and it’s very very funny and perverse and philosophical about morals in the workplace. And the morality of storytelling with live creatures, which is what we are. And it’s very fascinating and really funny and I get to direct it!
BH: Wow. That sounds brilliant. Where are you doing it?
TR: At the Working Theatre in New York. I love those guys. It’s a bunch of working class people who are union members and stuff. And they don’t always do a full season. They’re a fascinating theatre and I’m really pleased to be doing it with them. And, then, after that I’m doing one of my own plays called Dig and I’m directing it up at the Dorset Theatre Festival.
BH: You’re like so inspiring, man.
TR: (laughs) Just listening to you I was like, WOW, this is beautiful. I’m having a time-travel experience. It’s so great to look back and go, oh yeah! Man, you were like a guiding light. You still are. But to think back on how much that changed me…
BH: That just means so much to me.
Pulitzer Prize-winning play
Crimes of the Heart
By Beth Henley
Directed by Theresa Rebeck
April 12 - May 5, 2019
Winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Beth Henley’s first play brings you to the Mississippi home of the Magrath sisters. Crimes of the Heart teams with humanity as the sisters forgive the past, face the present, and embrace the future.