Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on March 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
Listening for `Voices in the Dark’
Thrillers are the hardest genre to write, even harder
than musical comedy," says playwright John Pielmeier. "It’s
all about the domino effect, and if one domino falls you have to go
back and fix everything."
Could this be the reason why it has been almost four years between
the world premiere of Pielmeier’s play "Voices in the Dark,"
at Seattle’s Contemporary Theater, and the play’s second production
at the George Street Playhouse?
Yes, says the accomplished playwright and author of the hugely successful
"Agnes of God." At a recent interview at George Street, Pielmeier
admits to being busy reworking his "Voices in the Dark" script.
This, however, doesn’t appear daunting to the play’s leading lady
Gates McFadden, whose brief visit during the interview adds a touch
of charm. And nothing seems to be troubling the play’s director, Chris
Ashley, who also joins us for a few minutes during a rehearsal break.
"Is he dumping a lot of new material on you?" I ask McFadden.
"As much as he can," replies the actor whom many audience
members will undoubtedly recognize from television and film appearances
as Dr. Beverly Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"I’ve done a lot of new plays," she says, "but what’s
great is that there isn’t the tension here that there can be with
a new play."
In "Voices in the Dark," McFadden retains her doctor’s credentials.
This time she plays Dr. Lil Anderson, a popular New York City radio
talk show psychologist who tries to deal with her marital problems
while in the midst of an increasingly disquieting, sensation-oriented
career. There is tension afoot for McFadden’s endangered character
when she becomes stranded during a blizzard in her husband’s cabin
in the woods in upstate New York.
Need we say that the play’s psychologist may not be alone as she had
expected? A caller, who claims to have murdered several women, has
tracked her down and wants her help. The other actors in the play
— who may or may not be a threat to McFadden’s wellbeing —
are John Ahlin, Peter Barlett, Lenny Blackburn, Alec Dennis, Nicole
Fonarow, Jonathan Hogan, and Robert Petkoff.
Now that’s tension. But perhaps no more so than the situations that
Pielmeier has conjured up for his other plays, including the provocative
"Agnes of God," the vivid war drama "Boys of Winter,"
and the mystery thriller, "Sleight of Hand."
Will "Voices in the Dark" make it to Broadway as did his previous
three plays? Pielmeier, who does not remember his Broadway experiences
as particularly happy times, officially takes the attitude: "I’m
not thinking about that right now." This may stem from his early
days as an actor. "As an actor, I didn’t enjoy my life," he
says. "I was very unhappy, until I wrote `Agnes of God.’"
Pielmeier’s talent as an actor is backed by an impressive list of
regional theaters where he performed, including the Actors Theater
of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
What happened to change Pielmeier’s profession from actor to playwright?
Pielmeier says he was acting at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
National Playwright’s Conference when he decided to submit his script
for "Agnes of God" for a staged reading. Pielmeier’s time
had come, and he acted with the confidence of someone who understood
the O’Neill’s focus and its artistic agenda. "I knew the kinds
of things that worked well there, such as a setless, three character
play," he says. "Agnes of God," about a young nun who
has been convicted of killing her own infant immediately after its
birth, was co-winner of the 1979 Great American Play contest, prior
to its premiere in 1980 at the Actors Theater of Louisville. After
several regional productions, "Agnes of God" enjoyed a 17-month
run on Broadway during the 1981-’82 season, and was also notable for
stellar performances by Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page, and Amanda
Plummer. Pielmeier subsequently wrote the screenplay for the successful
film version, directed by Norman Jewison.
If Pielmeier acknowledges that nothing he has written
since "Agnes of God" has been equally applauded, he continues
to encourage those who would and "must" write plays for a
living. However, Pielmeier does admit he also returns to acting in
rare circumstances. Most recently he was in a one-man show he wrote
called "Willi," based on the life and teachings of Willi Unsoeld,
an ordained minister and mountaineering guru from the Northwest who
climbed Mount Everest and was a leader of the Outward Bound movement.
Although I know that tension is a driving force in Pielmeier’s thriller,
it is clear as I look at Chris Ashley’s smiling face that he is a
director more inclined to relieve than instigate tension in rehearsals.
Ashley, a recipient of the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for his
outstanding direction of Paul Rudnick’s "Jeffrey" (both onstage
and on screen), seems not the least bit harried by the stress of the
upcoming previews. Noted as the director of the one-woman shows "Fire
in the Mirror" by Anna Deavere Smith at the New York Shakespeare
Festival, and "Blown Sideways Through Life," with Claudia
Shear, Ashley also directed the delightful but under-appreciated Off-Broadway
musical, "Das Barbecue." This latter show apparently sold
Ashley to Pielmeier. Now Pielmeier’s director of choice is making
his directorial debut at George Street. And although "Voices in
the Dark" has been optioned for New York, Ashley says, "I
am less concerned less about the play as a future commercial piece
than I am about making it work here."
Who wouldn’t love to write a thriller. But where do the ideas come
from? Back around 1991 a friend of his at a regional theater told
Pielmeier that his theater was looking for a good new thriller. Pielmeier
recalls saying to himself, "I guess I’ll have to do something."
Although Pielmeier recognizes that, unlike the anguish of "Agnes
of God," the angst of "Voices in the Dark" will probably
not be regarded as an "important play," he knows that there’s
a market among audiences for a thriller that thrills. "No, `Voices
in the Dark’ is not going to change anyone’s life," says Pielmeier
with a chuckle. "It’s for fun."
Born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Pielmeier went to Catholic
University, where he earned his degree in drama in 1970. He earned
an MFA in playwriting at Penn State. If Pielmeier is modest about
his subsequent honorary doctorate degree from St. Edwards University,
he exhibits the same self-effacing attitude when talking about his
life. As the son of a grocer and a housewife, neither of whom had
any theatrical inclinations, Pielmeier still cherishes their response
to his decision to go into the theater — "It sounds like a
very responsible profession," they told him. Wow!
While speaking of his own youth, Pielmeier asks parents not to bring
children under 12 to his "Voices in the Dark." Because of
its explicit sexual references and implicit violence, he says if this
were a film, it would be R-rated. Director Ashley says that this is
a thriller that will involve its adult audiences in the visceral way.
"Even with no blood and zero gore, it still comes across as tremendously
scary and shocking," says Ashley. While Pielmeier is the first
to admit how few thrillers are completely successful, he also admits
that he is unsure how scary audiences actually want a play to be.
"This is a pretty scary play. So just don’t anyone tell me that
I scared them too much," he says.
Set designer David Gallo has created the play’s primal
and "completely organic" log cabin. Gallo, whose sets for
"Jackie," and "Bunny Bunny" Off-Broadway were dazzling
exhibits in themselves, promises to create another equally visceral
experience for "Voices in the Dark."
Although the cabin in the play may look like the place where writers
choose to write their plays, Pielmeier says he wrote "Voices in
the Dark" in "my own little home, somewhat in the woods."
He lives there with his wife Irene O’Garden, also known as Irene O’Book,
a poet and writer of children’s books.
How exactly has the conspicuous successes and failures of his plays
impacted Pielmeier’s life? "I really enjoy working in the theater
as a kind of challenging game. But when it ceases to be fun I don’t
like to do it anymore," he says, with a childlike honesty. Pielmeier
says he makes his living writing primarily for TV and film. Some of
his more noteworthy screenplays have included "Agnes of God,"
"The Stranger Within," "The Last POW," "The Bobby
Garwood Story," and an adaptation of Dominick Dunne’s novel, "An
But Pielmeier is also candid about his last two experiences on Broadway
where, he says, the fun factor was sucked out. This disappointing
response has made Pielmeier, if not totally bitter, then tentatively
reticent about setting himself up for another disappointment. "I
didn’t write for a long time," he says, confessing that it has
been more than 10 years since he presented a play in New York. "I
only want this to continue if it is going to be a good experience,"
he says, allowing that he would prefer that if the play moves at all,
to move from George Street to an Off-Broadway venue.
Even as Pielmeier expresses his unwillingness to be placed in the
Broadway arena again, he says he would like the result of this experience
at George Street to be a turning point for him personally.
"I want to feel more comfortable writing again for the theater,"
he says, "and then to start writing some more serious things."
Perhaps Pielmeier need only wait and listen to his own voice in the
dark to hear the ideas for his next play.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the psychological
thriller by John Pielmeier that runs through April 4. $24 to $32.
Friday, March 13, 8 p.m.
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