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Can Conservative Values and Progressive Politics Coexist?

Date: Mar 30, 2018

Playwright Abby Rosebrock tries to work that out in Dido of Idaho


Abby Rosebrock did sketch comedy and worked in academia before becoming a performer-playwright. She was most fulfilled when the two went together. "It's like being a singer-songwriter," she explains. "You've written your own material and the performance is integral to bringing that material to life."

Yet she realized honing her skills as a dramatist meant acting had to take a backseat, at least temporarily. So she really wasn't planning to portray Crystal, a former beauty queen who doesn't realize her husband is cheating in Dido of Idaho at Ensemble Studio Theatre -- that's just the way it turned out. But Rosebrock has no regrets. "The voice ended up being so specific that I ended up just embracing it," she says.

The play was initially inspired by Rosebrock's obsession with the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas in which the Roman gods force the Trojan hero to abandon his lover who, bereft, commits suicide. In Dido of Idaho, fellow university professors Nora, a musicologist, and Michael, a poet, are having an affair. The two share many passions, including a love for Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, but he won't leave his wife Crystal. After an unpleasant confrontation between the two women, Nora flees to her estranged mother Julie, a culturally rigid yet sexually liberated evangelical Christian who happens to be bisexual.

While religious characters in theatre often come off as inflexible and one-note, Rosebrock is a master at making them nuanced and complicated. This stems from her upbringing in South Carolina, where liberal views coexisted with conservative values. "I grew up in a Lutheran church where some people had progressive politics, and I took some great lessons from learning the Gospel as a kid," she says. "But you're exposed to a lot of toxic lessons as well that I've been sorting out for the last 20 years."


One of the ways Rosebrock grapples with those contradictions is through the characters she creates. She wrote herself a Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction-style role in Different Animals about a religious couple trying out an open relationship. And all of the women in Dido of Idaho are torn between their religious backgrounds and romantic appetites. But Nora's mom Julie is the one who truly contains multitudes. As Rosebrock puts it: "She's evangelical and deeply religious and relentlessly God-focused in her rhetoric, but also extremely educated and refined."

Although Nora considers herself an atheist, reuniting with her mother helps her reconnect with her religious past, and perhaps offers her a way forward, both in love and piety. "Nora realizes she can find faith in the stories and images, she just has to do it in her own way," Rosebrock says. "Her life won't necessarily look like the images she's been fed, but it's still holy if there's real love."


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Top image: Abby Rosenbrock and Layla Khosh in Dido of Idaho. Photos by Gerry Goodstein.

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