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Second Time’s The Charm

Date: Sep 25, 2009


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(NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: A funny thing happened on the way to writing this story. Shortly after I spoke with Lucy Thurber, I was hired to fill in as the sound designer on her production. Our interview was completed prior to any discussion about my work on the show)

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is primarily devoted to new plays.  They helped make Adam Rapp who he is today, and last year they staged premieres from Craig Wright and Sheila Callaghan.  It was thus a surprise when they announced that their fifteenth anniversary season would begin with a new production of a play that was largely dismissed by audiences and critics in 2001.

That play was Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family, a rough and tumble descent into a waking nightmare of identity, family, and class. Killers, which runs through October 11, was Thurber’s first reviewed play in New York, but it wasn’t what she hoped it would be.

“The interpretation was so wrong, I would’ve been happy never to see it again,” she says. However, David Van Asselt, Rattlestick’s artistic director, believed in the play and wanted to give it another shot. “It’s a pretty exciting thing for an artistic director of a theatre to say, `No, we didn’t do right by this play, we want to do it again and get it right,’” Thurber says. 

What went awry with the first version of the show? Thurber laughs that the original director thought the play was about voyeurism. “To me that is clearly what the play is not about,” she says. “It was quite odd.  But you know, it is a tricky piece.”

The play chronicles one day in the life of Elizabeth, a doctoral student who has escaped her past in rural, poverty-stricken Massachusetts and now lives with her girlfriend in New York.  When her brother and her ex-boyfriend show up unexpectedly, she finds herself trapped between present and past.

Killers and Other Family is the first of what Thurber calls her “Massachusetts” plays, in which she tracks a main female character at various points in her life. The plays grew out of an interest in the multifaceted nature of American life.  “There’s all these different Americas out there,” she says, “There’s the lower income America and there’s the educated liberal America. This girl goes through them. I’m also interested in the different moral codes of the different Americas and the different ways in which language is used. In my Massachusetts Plays, violence is a big language because people lack education, and so they communicate differently. And then there’s another language where you learn to speak and to expect that speaking will get you something. Coming up poor myself, I wasn’t sure what talking got me other than a smack, so I think this play is all of that.”

Asked what it’s like to revisit a play that’s been in a drawer for so long, Thurber says, “I am a better writer now than when I wrote it.” She also feels she’s gained perspective. “I wrote the play when I was in the midst of the heart of that particular crisis for myself. I’m not in that place anymore,” she explains.

Part of what is striking about seeing an older play by a more established artist is seeing the development of themes that track through their work.  Thurber’s latest play in New York, Monstrosity (workshopped by 13P over the summer) featured a cast of thirty, included a teen chorus, and was over two hours long.  That’s a far cry from the brisk, nasty, darkly comedic eighty minutes of Killers. Yet all the themes from Killers and Other Family—in Thurber’s words “love, loyalty, growth, destruction, who you are going to stand for as a human being”—are all very present in the newer play.
Thurber calls those themes her obsessions.  Asked why they hold her attention, she can only laugh. “I wish I knew,” she says. “If I knew what made me obsessed with it, I wouldn’t be obsessed with it.  So I don’t know. But I like ‘em.”


Isaac Butler writes about theatre, politics and cultural issues for his website, parabasis