The story of “The Bells” unfolds in a rough and tumble world where every turn brings chaos, danger, and anything goes, as prospectors scramble for gold. And they will do anything necessary to get it. Even murder. In such a rugged setting, can a “simple” crime that may be self or family defense matter at all? What’s one more dead body?
A wild epic yarn set in the Alaskan frontier during the gold rush, “The Bells” by Theresa Rebeck — a former writer and producer of the Emmy Award-winning TV series “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — is now in previews at McCarter Theater, with opening night, Friday, March 25.
Though the play deals with mysteries and intrigue, with some comic relief thrown in, it is also a political satire. Rebeck uses the Gold Rush as a metaphor for capitalism, which she feels has fostered the belief that any behavior is justifiable for money. “Men in power in this country say they’re all for family values,” she says, “but their actions indicate that it’s okay to murder thousands of Iraqis for financial gain.”
This conviction informs the heart of her play. “They show no grief or self-examination about the amount of violence they are enacting to achieve their goals which are, as far as I can see, purely about money and crony capitalism, for themselves and for their friends. The entire country has been snowed by their insistence that Americans are good men doing what is necessary for the domestic good of our people.”
She started writing “The Bells” five years ago and says she finds it frightening to see that as this mercenary, self-centered philosophy becomes more and more apparent, the message of her play becomes more and more relevant. Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter, who is directing this production, says: “[The play] works on many levels: as a father/daughter play, as a ghost story, and as a cautionary tale about America’s frontier mentality.”
In the introduction to the published collection of her plays from 1989-1998, Rebeck writes, “I spend a lot of time thinking about America, who we are as a people and a culture and a nation, and I have always felt that the theater is a truly appropriate place to examine these issues.”
Rebeck first gained widespread notice as a playwright in 1992 with the production at New York’s Second Stage of “Spike Heels,” a dark social comedy that examines gender and power. Working in an industry that is always looking for labels, she was termed a “feminist writer.” The following year, she was whisked away to Hollywood to write for television. Then she earned the label, “TV writer.” Also in the introduction to her collection of plays, she responds vehemently to these labels. “If I were to be categorized at all, I would like to be called an American playwright.”
With this production of “The Bells,” she will send everyone searching for new labels — “none of the above” or perhaps “all of the above and more.” One thing is certain: she is a storyteller.
Several factors meshed together to lead her to writing this play. She read something about the gold rush era and started wondering about those people who faced extreme hardship in the hopes of “getting something for nothing, just picking the gold up from the ground.” She says that only 40 percent of those who headed for the gold field made it. And if they got there, they found themselves in a dangerous and lawless place. Rebeck calls it, “One huge Donner party,” referring to a time of great human degradation
Next, memory “threads” from her graduate school dissertation on Victorian melodrama prompted her to shape “The Bells” in melodrama form. It is based, she says, “very loosely” on a 19th century melodrama. “But it has grown very far from its source. It is sort of the difference between ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’ and ‘Agamemnon,’ except even further away.”
She was fascinated by the musicality of the storytelling in melodrama. “Some feel it’s a theatrical wasteland,” citing “thin” language and psychology. But Rebeck was riveted. “There’s interesting structural stuff going on and a passionate belief in spectacle. The plots were real rippers.” She decided to use these melodramatic devices in her play, but she adds a contemporary insight to the psychological aspects and what she calls “re-imagined language.”
Writing for the theater is her first love. Looking back at her experiences in Hollywood, writing for televisions and the movies, she has mixed feelings. Certainly, the big financial rewards can’t be denied. And she won’t rule out doing additional TV work, if it is a project she believes in. “My husband and I do have two children to send to college,” she says. (She and her husband, Jess Lynn, have two children, Cooper, 10 and Cleo, 3.) However, much of her experience in TV/movie land was not good. She used this personal history to write “The Family of Mann,” a funny satire about TV sitcom land, mounted in New York at Second Stage in 1998. Aileen Jacobson of New York Newsday, wrote. “When Theresa Rebeck’s funny, she’s savagely funny. When she’s serious, she draws blood.”
The bureaucracy of the television system puts many writers on every project. She feels that this defeats the drive of the story and the voice of the storyteller. “Hollywood is much about taking away the authority of the writer.” She calls it “corporatized,” and adds, “I admire the writers who manage that mine field and get through that.” She worked on a draft or two on a number of films, but of the ones she got credit for on screen, she says, “one was terrible, two were OK.” She chose not to tell me which fell into which category. However, the only one she mentions is “Harriet the Spy.” Others in her professional bio are totally unfamiliar titles, with the exception of “Cat Woman.”
She is proud of her work on “NYPD Blue.” “For me, that was the gold standard.” She wrote a number of episodes during the early seasons. For her work on “NYPD Blue,” she received the Writer’s Guild of America award for episodic drama, the Hispanic Images Imagine Award, Edgar and Peabody Awards, as well as 2003 New Voices Award at the Willian Inge Theater Festival. She also wrote for “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “Brooklyn Bridge.”
Rebeck says she believes strongly that theater preserves the integrity of the storyteller: one writer with a group of actors to tell the story that the person wants to tell. For now, she’s glad to concentrate on writing plays and being with her family. Making sure that he learns how much fun theater can be, Rebeck took her son, Cooper, to see “Dracula” on Broadway. “He thought the flying was ‘really cool’ and had a fantastic time.” Her husband used to be a stage manager, but while she was writing for TV, he stayed home and took care of the children. Now that they are older and they are all living in Brooklyn, he has his own business and Rebeck plans to focus on playwriting. “I think I’ve earned the right to just be a playwright.”
She grew up in Cincinnati. Her father is an engineer; her mother, a homemaker. She has five brothers and sisters, none of them in the arts. “I was a real freak. It’s a mystery to all of us.” She terms her family as “fairly religious” and she attended parochial school.
She speaks in glowing terms of the nuns at Ursuline Academy who gave her a strong educational start and introduced her to her creative talents. “I was fed by those women. I still go back to visit. Especially Sister Clair, who is in her eighties, but still so vital and intelligent. Her curiosity is endless.”
Rebeck fell in love with theater when she went with her classmates on a bus to Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park to attend a student matinee of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” As a teenager, she wrote for the school newspaper and acted in plays. At some point, she decided to put these two “loves” together and become a playwright. She went to college at Notre Dame University, graduating in 1983 with a bachelors in English, but says, “It was a bad fit. The patriarchal agenda there didn’t sit well with me.” Graduate school at Brandeis University turned out to suit her better, where she earned a masters and then a Ph.D.in Victorian literature in 1989.
These melodramas were real crowd-pleasers, and it is obvious that Rebeck hopes for the same positive audience reception with “The Bells.” “I’m interested in theater that invites people in and is a pleasurable experience.” We had talked backstage while rehearsals were going on. She was anxious to get back into the rehearsal room, to what she terms “the mystery and magic.” She adds, “Storytelling is so precious to me.”
“The Bells,” Matthews Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Spine-tingling new drama set in the waning years of the Alaska Gold Rush. Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Emily Mann. Previews through March 24; opening night, March 25; runs through April 10. $33 to $48. 609-258-2787.