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Week of 8 February 2002 · Vol. V, No. 22


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Two sisters, two wives, two lives
Hawthorne-inspired drama raises curtain on tangled relations

By Hope Green

Two young and comely women sat together by the fireside, nursing their mutual and peculiar sorrows. They were the recent brides of two brothers, a sailor and a landsman, and two successive days had brought tidings of the death of each, by the chances of the Canadian warfare, and the tempestuous Atlantic . . .-- from Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story The Wives of the Dead


Playwright Todd Hearon (GRS'02), with director Rosemarie Ellis (GRS'99). Photo by Vernon Doucette


Todd Hearon was moved by Hawthorne's 19th-century tale of two women united in grief and insomnia by news of their sudden widowhood. But as a playwright, he started to wonder what would happen if he were to put a contemporary spin on their "mutual and peculiar sorrows" and let the characters voice them as they sit before the hearth.

The result is Wives of the Dead, winner of the 2000 Paul Green Playwrights Prize, currently being staged at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre by the Bridge Theatre Company. Basing his characters loosely on Hawthorne's, Hearon (GRS'02) re-created the pair of mourners not as in-laws but as sisters, both Navy wives, whose husbands share ship duty in the Persian Gulf. The play opens two days after Elizabeth and Sylvia have received word of an unexplained explosion on the ship, and having heard no further news, they now assume the worst.

Suspense, however, is not where this play derives its drama. As the sisters reflect on the dysfunctional aspects of their family life -- as children and now, as adults, in wedlock -- the story takes shape in their cathartic dialogue.
"The play is simply a conversation between two women sitting in a room talking late at night," Hearon says, "and that is the scheme and system of limitations I set for myself. I didn't want anything to happen except talk, and I wanted everything to be in the talk. It's a movement of the spirit, a dramatic action as speech and thought are dramatic action. So what really happens is memory, reminiscence, reaction, and revelation, and by the end of the evening everything is changed for these two women."

A doctoral candidate in Boston University's Editorial Institute, Hearon is a cofounder of the Bridge Theatre Company and has been acting, directing, and writing for the past seven years. He writes poetry as well as plays, and in crafting the lines of Wives of the Dead he tried to capture what he calls "the poetry of everyday speech . . . the points of brilliance or beauty in the shards of spoken language." He also aims to make his dialogue sound realistic: the sisters frequently interrupt each other, pause mid-thought, interject nonessential clauses, and jump topics.

Director Rosemarie Ellis (GRS'99), also a poet, believes Hearon has achieved both his goals.

"I think there's a kind of rhythm to the language all through the play," she says. "It surfaces more in some places than in others. Sometimes it's in the back-and-forth between the actresses, and when spoken at the right pace the dialogue is very rhythmic, like poetry, but it also is completely natural and sounds the way two people would when they're speaking to each other."

These verbal volleys are fierce at times. The sisters and their husbands all shared a house in a small Massachusetts fishing town, and now the exhausted, presumably bereaved women sit in the parlor taking stock of memories and old wounds, not least of which is the death of their drunken fisherman father when they were children.

"The play is an emotional roller-coaster of real life," says Phyllis Rittner (CAS'83), who plays the repressed older sister, Elizabeth. "It's like peeping into someone's living room and taking an inner look at what's happening late at night between the sisters, who really love each other but also have struggles. The crisis brings out their true selves, and I think the audience will be able to relate to that and have strong feelings. They'll come out of the theater changed in some way."

  Kara Crowe (left) and Phyllis Rittner (CAS'83) star in Wives of the Dead. Photo by Michael Walker

Rittner, who majored in sociology at BU, has been acting in community theater productions and independent films for the past eight years. This is the first play, however, where she is one of only two characters, and such a role takes intense concentration. Elizabeth spends a lot of her time on the sofa, listening and restrained, while Sylvia speaks in tirades and frequently gets up to fill her teacup with whiskey.

"Sylvia is right out there in the beginning," Rittner says, "whereas my character slowly develops, and you see her as the true person she is toward the end of the play."

While Hearon fine-tuned the script in collaboration with the actresses to ensure the natural quality he was after, Ellis helped them relax their gestures and body language.

"Generally I think stage actors are trained to put on a more outwardly projecting, public persona with their acting roles," she says. "So a lot of my job has been working with them to forget there's an audience completely, and to move toward very informal ways of behaving and interacting that wouldn't normally happen in front of other people."

Hearon's first two staged plays were Mis (1997), a verse drama based on an Irish myth, and What Ghosts There Were (2000), a verse monologue; each had a run at the Boston Center for the Arts. He has also directed productions of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade. He intends Wives of the Dead to be the first play in a trilogy, and each play will be set in a different region where he has lived: New England, Texas, and southern Appalachia.

Last year Hearon returned to the Southeast to claim his Paul Green Playwrights Prize, which is awarded annually by the North Carolina Writers Network. The global competition is named for an influential American playwright and North Carolina native whose work appeared on Broadway numerous times, beginning with his 1927 Pulitzer prize-winner, In the Bosom of Abraham.

Hearon spent much of his boyhood in the picturesque Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, N.C., before his family moved to Texas, so apart from the prestige of his award there was a poignancy to being honored in the Old North State. "In a way," he says, "it felt like a homecoming."

Wives of the Dead runs February 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, and 23 at 8 p.m., with matinees on February 10 and 17 at 2 p.m., at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave. For tickets, call 781-893-8441.


8 February 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations