‘A recent widow finds herself in an unexpected, life-changing romance with a man half her age!” This is the tag line from advertisements for “The Things You Least Expect,” currently in previews and opening at George Street Playhouse on Friday, October 8 Hardly shocking in today’s Demi-Ashton world. At a time of life when most retirees move to Arizona or Florida, play Canasta, board tour buses to Atlantic City, or dine on “early bird” specials, director/playwright/ librettist Joan Vail Thorne incites this very slice of the demographic pie to champion this last quarter of their lives as a time for adventure and new discoveries.
In her play “The Things You Least Expect,” Thorne’s central character, finding herself alone after her husband’s death, sets out to make the most of the rest of her life and discover as-yet-untapped possibilities. Not unlike a number of older w omen in other plays and films — “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Enchanted April,” and “Shirley Valentine,” to name a few — she goes to Europe.
Actresses of a certain age must cheer for joy because for the second time, playwright Thorne has written a role of an older woman who is strong, resourceful, and certainly not ready to turn in her license to live a full life. Thorne’s earlier play, “The Exact Center of the Universe,” which also deals with an older woman’s reflections on age and change and starred Thorne’s graduate school friend Frances Sternhagen, had a respectable run Off Broadway, first at the Woman’s Project, then a transfer to the Century Center for the Performing Arts in 1999.
We talked backstage in a dressing room before Thorne joined director David Saint for the day’s rehearsal. A tall, handsome, elegant woman, she could easily have been a fashion model instead of a theater director. A preview I’d received from playwright Julie Jensen (Thorne has directed several of her plays) had prepared me. Jensen describes her as, “a classy woman, something of a renaissance woman. I always feel a bit like a toad around her. She’s always put together, with pearls and earrings, all that. She’s thoughtful, smart, articulate, careful, funny, and a lady, always a lady.” I found Thorne very open and gracious. We chatted like two old college chums who had just been reunited.
Noting that women statistically outlive their partners and tend to have changing careers, she says, “I am struck by the fact that so many women live two lives, not at the same time, but in sequence.” Though Thorne has never been a widow, she does have friends who have lost their husbands. “When you lose a partner/husband, you have the opportunity to find a piece of yourself that you’ve never known. This final 25 percent of our lives, when you no longer are defined by being someone’s respondent — I look at this as an opportunity. This affair with a younger man happened because of a kind of a soul shift in two human beings.”
She and a brother who now lives in Florida grew up in small-town Hammond, where her father was in refrigeration engineering. “He froze strawberries, peaches, and shrimp,” says Thorne. The strong influences in her life were her father, her homemaker mother, and her mother’s “indomitable” women friends. She explains that at that time, in that place, the whole community mothered you. None of these southern ladies was the least bit reticent to lecture any of the younger generation. “Many Southern women have a grit about them,” she says. “They pressed you to be the best you could be. I find those ladies the most liberated unliberated women. They were busy liberating others.” She felt the support of this extended family even though going into the theater was considered “crazy.”
At 16, when she left her hometown of Hammond, Louisiana (not far from Katrina’s path but not affected by the water damage), Thorne didn’t tell her family of her theatrical plans. After all, Sweet Briar College in Virginia was a very “proper” school for a young lady of that era, and it remains an all-female school tending to “the education of remarkable women,” according to the college’s website. When she was there in the ’50s, her drama major was considered “dubious.” So, in order to make it seem more acceptable, there was a focus on fluency in a foreign language, aesthetics, and philosophy.
However, like most southerners, when she visited her mother, who lived to be 93, she always said, “I’m going home.” She had never even seen a play when she launched out on a theatrical career. “Touring companies didn’t come to Louisiana,” she says, adding, “There was Le Petit Theater in New Orleans, but that was 50 miles away and very posh.” Some innate gene had encouraged her. She cites the narrative tradition passed down to her by her Irish grandmother. “I used to memorize and recite poetry. I felt the power of performance in the little things that I did.” In addition, she did live in the South, and as Thorne tells it, “Southerners live life not to live it, but to tell stories about it.”
A woman “of a certain age” herself, Thorne has built a strong theatrical resume as a director. She shot straight out of graduate school at the Catholic University of America, when her mentor, the acclaimed director Alan Schneider, recommended her to Zelda Fichandler, the founding director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Thorne calls Schneider, “the light of my professional life,” inspiring her to become a director. “He was a giant,” says Thorne, “and I thought maybe I could do that.” Schneider is best known for introducing all of Samuel Becket’s plays to the American audience, as well as directing the original production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the Broadway debuts of several Pinter plays. His amazing career was cut tragically short when he was killed in a traffic accident in London in 1984.
She feels that Schneider’s greatest gifts to her were “courage, a really open mind, and a sensitivity to the vibrations in the world.” She remembers that in his university classes, he never assigned books about theater, but rather about design and architecture. “We read a book about the origin of cities. His mind was vast, and he wanted that kind of power to be invested in work for the theater.”
With recommendations from Fichandler, Schneider, and her Shakespeare professor at Sweet Briar College, where she earned her undergraduate degree in drama, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study repertory theater in the United Kingdom. Upon her return to the States, her credentials as a theater professional were validated when she directed “Androcles and the Lion” and “Rain” during the 1954-’55 season at Arena Stage. Schneider hired her as his assistant director for two of his Broadway plays, “Blood Red Roses” in 1970 and “A Texas Trilogy” in 1976.
Since her impressive early start at the Arena Stage, Thorne has made a strong record as a director in a field that has been dominated by men. It was not until 1998 that a woman received a Tony award for directing (Garry Hynes for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” — Hynes is directing McCarter’s upcoming production of Brian Friel’s “Translations”). Thorne, therefore, has been a pioneer, working in many major regional theaters and Off Broadway. “Women must become more present in every area of the art form,” says Thorne.
Thorne turned to playwriting when her constant travel to work at theaters all over the country interfered with her duties as a mother. “I became a playwright by accident. When the children were little, I wanted to be there.”
Currently living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, she and Jack have three grown children: “one real person” — Vail Thorne, a corporate lawyer; and two others who follow their mother’s example — Tracy Thorne is an actress, and John Thorne is the principal flutist with the Houston Symphony.
In addition to writing plays, Thorne has also written opera libretti and text for narrator and orchestra. She taught for some time at the Julliard School and now teaches directing to New York University students at Playwrights Horizons Theater School.
Thorne gives high praise for George Street’s artistic director David Saint, who is directing “The Things You Least Expect.” “He has a remarkable sensitivity to this play, an understanding.” It’s interesting that last season at George St reet, Saint dealt with life after the loss of a partner in Arthur Laurents’ “Two Lives.” Whether the partners are a man and a woman or same sex partners, the courage to go on must resonate deeply with Saint. Perhaps the important thing is that we love anyone we love. And the loving is the key.
The Things You Least Expect, through Sunday, October 29, opening night Friday, October 8, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $56. 732-246-7717.