`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

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 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.

732-246-7717.

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