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The prolific playwright returns to the New York stage with back-to-back shows about trauma and healing
Theresa Rebeck is not a fan of labels. As the most produced woman dramatist on Broadway this century, she is often dubbed a feminist playwright because her work depicts the world from a female perspective. In her eyes, that's not only reductive but also implies the male viewpoint is universal while othering everyone else's. That's part of what has kept Broadway a boys' club for so long, though there's been some heartening progress of late. Of the 11 plays announced so far this Broadway season, five are by women, including Rebeck's new dark comedy about a hoarder who can't let go, I Need That, which begins previews in October at Roundabout Theatre Company and stars Danny DeVito and his real-life daughter Lucy DeVito.
But first, Rebeck—whose credits include Bernhardt/Hamlet, Seminar, Seared, Pulitzer finalist Omnium Gatherum and dozens of TV series—has a different show opening Off Broadway this month: Dig. Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, the production marks her post-pandemic return to the New York stage and she's directing it, too.
Rebeck digs into some challenging subjects in the play, which centers on Megan (Andrea Syglowski), an alcoholic struggling to move forward after a horrific accident. An unlikely job at a plant shop provides a chance for redemption and connection with the isolated owner, Roger (Jeffrey Bean). Like Dig, I Need That also explores how to move beyond a traumatic loss. Despite the shared theme, the works were written years apart. It's only due to residual pandemic delays that they're being presented back-to-back in a year that has, sadly, been full of personal loss for Rebeck as well.
TDF Stages spoke with the writer-director about her distaste of nihilism, telling women's (not feminist) stories and how two late, beloved artistic directors are responsible for her busy fall.
Sarah Rebell: Let's start with Dig. What inspired you to explore the themes of rebirth and mortality through plants?
Theresa Rebeck: My husband knows a lot about plants. I am fascinated that there are people so in touch with the world of growing things. I became interested in the ability of someone to bring something back to life; at the same time, I knew a lot of people going through trauma. So, those two themes came together for me. The question of how a person survives a terrible loss is something we all face. I put Megan with Roger, somebody who knows how to take care of plants, just to see what happened. Roger has been hiding from the world and he's got his own reckoning to face. The play is about how we help each other heal.
Rebell: Although Roger is called a saint in the play, he's grappling with his own issues. Still, he's more empathic toward Megan than the other men she encounters.
Rebeck: I would say she's had a reckless relationship with men her whole life and it led her the wrong way. A lot of times with Dig, I thought, this play is so much about guilt. We can't understand the mystery of guilt if we don't see the suffering Megan is willing to put herself through because she thinks she deserves it.
Rebell: Much of the male-dominated traditional American theatre canon does not dwell on issues like cycles of abuse or the messiness of motherhood and the singular grief that can accompany it. It seems you're adding a much-needed perspective.
Rebeck: I've always felt like the task of a playwright is to tell the truth from your point of view, from where you stand. I think audiences are hungry for that. August Wilson did that powerfully. He's a big role model for me. I am a total fanatic about his work, the way it leans on language and mystery and humanity but tells the truth from that point of view. But I think it's still challenging for the entire planet to understand that women live in a different world from men. There's a lot of resistance to that truth. Women's stories are different but very deeply entwined with men's stories. I don't understand why anything that's told from a female point of view is called feminist. Why then don't we call anything from a male point of view masculinist? I've seen plenty of plays by male writers I admire who write complex male parts and then the women show up and they're caricatures. And I think that's a failed masculinist play.
Rebell: I was fascinated to learn that you have a PhD in Victorian melodrama, a type of theatre typically associated with clear-cut heroes and villains. Your plays feature much more nuanced characters.
Rebeck: You know, we are just who we are. The real trick is figuring out what your voice sounds like, not trying to make it sound like something. I do think that psychologically, or spiritually, I have more in common with Chekhov or Ibsen. For a long time, there was a kind of contempt for the well-made play. And I'm like, why? Ibsen did such a beautiful job with those plays.
Rebell: Megan's relationship with her father Lou (Triney Sandoval) is also central to Dig. Your next play, I Need That, is also about a father and his daughter, played by Danny and Lucy DeVito respectively. Have you made any discoveries in your process as a director and writer on Dig that you're bringing into the rehearsal room for I Need That?
Rebeck: What you just said is a smart question but really what I'm thinking about is, how am I going to make the next two weeks work? We're in previews for Dig, so I need to be at 59E59 from 5 p.m. on and I'll be at rehearsal at the Roundabout from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. But to your question: What became interesting to me in the relationship between Megan and her father is the fact that she is adopted. We adopted my daughter about 20 years ago. You don't really see your kids as any different. But anytime something would wobble with my daughter, I'd think, "Did I miss something?" In Dig, there's a kind of terror in the heart of the father. His daughter has made such a mess of her life. He thinks maybe it's his fault and so he's in reactivity to that possibility because that's his way of dealing with the tragedy. I Need That is much more based on the relationship between Danny and Lucy. Part of the process was listening to them and seeing how they care for each other. It is true that these are both dysfunctional father-daughter relationships, but they're very different.
Rebell: Both plays also have prop-heavy sets. The plant shop in Dig, designed by Christopher and Justin Swader, is stunningly intricate. The I Need That script calls for stuff filling the entire stage. Do you think of yourself as a visual writer and director?
Rebeck: I love a gorgeous set. That's my aesthetic, there's no question. I actually wrote these two plays very far apart. It was funny when I realized that they were going to be done back-to-back. I was like, oh my god, props galore! I have been called a playwright who loves a good prop, and I don't deny it. People walk into the theatre for Dig and they are soothed by how beautiful it is.
Rebell: Both shows were initially developed at Vermont's Dorset Theatre Festival under Dina Janis' leadership. What do you love about workshopping new plays there?
Rebeck: I had a little farmhouse up in Vermont. We started going up there in summers when my kids were small. And then when Dina took over, she was happy to have me involved. It's an extraordinarily beautiful space, just great dimensions. Dina did a great job of building that theatre up. She's moved on to other projects and now it's being run by two guys [Ryan Koss and Will Rucker] who are just as good. That theatre is precious to the whole community. I think better when I'm in the country. It's much simpler. When you develop things in New York, the institutions are bigger and more complicated.
Rebell: How did I Need That, an intimate, three-person play, end up going from Dorset to Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway house?
Rebeck: [The director] Moritz von Stuelpnagel knows Danny and Lucy DeVito. We started talking to them early in the process when we were developing it. We did a reading of it amongst ourselves on Zoom during the pandemic. Todd Haimes [Roundabout Theatre Company's late artistic director] called Danny and said, "When we come out of this pandemic, we'll do anything that you want to do." Danny said, "Well, I'm working on this play I really like with Theresa Rebeck." Todd was really the glue that brought it there. He found a slot for it and then sadly, Todd died.
This was a spring of terrible loss for me. The first person I lost was Andrew Leynse [the late artistic director of Primary Stages], who was bringing Dig in. We're all still reeling from that because it was so sudden—he was so young and strong. And then we all lost Todd. I loved them both so much. I really felt like they were both great artistic directors in the way they protected their artists and gave their artists freedom. They were beautiful artists themselves.
Rebell: And just last month, we also lost the legendary playwright Tina Howe.
Rebeck: I celebrate Tina so much. She did so much for me. For many years, she was an advocate for playwrights and especially female playwrights. She was a unique human; we all depended on her originality and her love.
Rebell: When I was preparing for our conversation today, I read a 2018 New York Times profile of you in which Tina said of you and your writing: "There's a moral heart to Theresa." Do you agree with that assessment?
Rebeck: I agree with her completely. And I thank you for mentioning that. I know that nihilism is often something that playwrights explore, and that's not my purpose. I'm interested in kindness and hope and the struggle toward grace. In Dig, somebody uses the word grace. That's not a casual word to me. I believe we can save the Earth. We have to work harder. But I believe in compassion. I'm one of those people who believes that theatre is a lesson in empathy. We all come together, and we share a story with these actors on the stage. We learn to feel for each other and that is a good thing. That's the power of theatre.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Top image: Theresa Rebeck. Photo by Cleo Lynn.