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Do Violins and Basketball Mix? Jessica Dickey's new play straddles the arts/sports divide

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

Jessica Dickey's Charles Ives Take Me Home, now at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, examines the struggle between Laura Starr (Kate Nowlin), a young girl obsessed with basketball, and her divorced dad John (Drew McVety), a professional violinist with no interest in sports. All the while, the spirit of John's one-time teacher, the famed composer Charles Ives (Henry Stram)---who happened to be a major sports fan---literally and figuratively hangs between them.

If the work feels intensely personal, it's because the play incorporates many facets of the author's life. "I grew up playing sports at a young age. In fact, I started playing basketball with the boys at the local Y when I was 10," she says. "But I also performed as a child, so there was always this conflict. Yet I always knew I wanted to go into the arts."

As for the use of the legendary Ives as a character, Dickey was exposed to the modernist master's work while in college, and it made a lasting impression. "I first learned about Ives when I was at Boston University studying acting. However, I took a class focusing on the trajectory of modern music, and I immediately felt his music was theatrical in its conception," she says. "I don't know if I remembered consciously that he was a sports fan, but I found that out while doing my research for this play. He even played baseball when he was at Yale. When I saw that, I knew he'd be the perfect referee for John and Laura."

The play, which was nominated for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, requires three unusual performers, as the actress playing Laura must be an expert basketball dribbler, while the men playing Ives and John must play the piano and violin, respectively. But Dickey didn't give that a second thought. "I never worried about the casting while writing it," she says, adding that she has no plans to portray Laura herself. "It's true that I can dribble as well as Laura can. But I figured if there's one of me, there are 10 of me around. Maybe because I'm a working actor in New York City, I knew we could find people who possess the weirdest series of traits imaginable. Or perhaps I just had this strange, cocky confidence that the right three people could be found."

As for this particular cast, Dickey couldn't be more pleased. "Kate can not only dribble well, she is really tall and incredibly funny" she says. "We found Drew over a year ago, and he plays the violin incredibly. And Henry is someone I've long been a fan of, but we didn't know he was an incredible pianist until the workshop process. And he even already had Charles Ives on his iPod. It's really been delightful to watch these actors inhabit these characters and show themselves in a way they don't usually get called on to do."

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Brian Scott Lipton is a writer based in New York City

Photo by Sandra Coudert