`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 6. 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
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
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
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 Street, 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.