In 1981, Beth Henley, then 28, hit it big with her first full-length play, “Crimes of the Heart.” Opening on Broadway at the John Golden Theater, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play, was nominated for a Tony Award, and captured the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Celebrating her birthday that year on May 8, she had definitely moved very quickly into rarified company. The play was later made into a movie with Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange playing the three sisters. Henley received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.
Forever after, she is always referred to as Pulitzer Prize-winner Beth Henley. Certainly such early success can jump start a career but for Henley it may also have played games with her life. But, she says, “I am glad it happened that way.” The prize codified her worth, and she was able to think, “Well, maybe I am a writer.” This assurance set her on her career path. “The greatest thing in my life is being able to write and not have to have regular jobs. Many writers do and I know how hard that is. It’s really daunting. I’m grateful I won it early.” Henley has confessed to McCarter dramaturg Janice Paran, that when she got the attention that went with the awards, she was a bit arrogant and sometimes obnoxious. But with maturity, it seems she has left that behind.
Her latest play “Ridiculous Fraud,” currently in previews with its official opening on Friday, May 12, at McCarter’s Berlind Theater, is about three brothers. Paran, who has worked with Henley during the play’s development, calls it a “bookend” or companion piece for “Crimes of the Heart.” Returning to her southern roots, and again dealing with family connections and misconnections, the play is set in New Orleans pre-Katrina.
Henley’s favorite topic is family and a number of her plays have dealt with families, usually surviving some bizarre but comic adventures but always holding on to a truth that resonates for many families: truth about siblings and what it’s like when a parent is absent. Paran describes “Ridiculous Fraud” as “a portrait of a family trying their level best to figure out what it is to be a family while at the same time running smack into what a bad job they’re doing at it.” She adds with some amusement, “which is something most of us, if we scratch the surface of our own family histories, identify with.” She thinks we will recognize these characters who are trying hard to figure out the right thing to do.
According to Henley, she began working on this play during McCarter’s annual artists’ retreat in 2004. (That was certainly a productive time. Among the nine participating artists that year were: Christopher Durang, working on “Miss Witherspoon;” director Daniel Fish doing preliminary work on his version of “Hamlet,” as well as Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz and Irish writer Byrony Lavery, best-known for her play “Frozen.”)
Henley doesn’t easily define her process. “I just have lots of chaos and go on instinct to write.” She keeps journals full of ideas, images, words, and dialogue that inspire her plays and screenplays. She says: “I have legions of notebooks.” Again she uses this term, saying, “It’s chaos.” When I ask how she brings these bits and pieces together, she says, “I have no idea. The first draft is sort of a mess. Slowly, with lots of work, the play comes out.”
Paran confirms this by describing Henley as a deeply instinctual writer. “The more we get into rehearsal, the more we realized her vision seems to be in ways that none of us fully appreciated on the page. Beth understands on a really deep level what it is that she hopes to conjure. On a conscious level she doesn’t know what she’s got.”
If you’re wondering what a dramaturg does, Paran defines her job like this: “I’m there to offer my own genuine admiration and patience in nudging her toward what seems to be unfolding.” Paran, who was the McCarter dramaturg for 14 years, has returned on a free-lance basis to continue her association with this play. She talked with me over lunch at the Faculty Club at Drew University.
Looking back at my notes from the conversation I had with Henley backstage at McCarter in mid-April when rehearsals were just beginning, they are a bit chaotic as well, as we jumped from topic to topic. She was in Princeton for a week, then flew back to her home in Los Angeles, where she lives alone with her 10-year-old son, Patrick. She will be back for previews and the opening of “Ridiculous Fraud.”
Trying to describe her process to me, Henley says, “for some reason I knew the last scene would take place in a New Orleans graveyard in one of those above ground tombs. I was looking at photographs of them. I had no idea who was going to die or how they were going to die or why they were there. It was just that in the third act I knew there was going to be violence, and I thought at one point maybe one of the brothers is going to kill another brother. You never know.”
I’m sure we will meet some eccentric southerners in this play but Paran feels that Henley is often too easily dismissed and that her plays are underrated as simply the outpourings of just another kooky southern gothic writer. Praising this new play as one of Henley’s strongest, Paran applauds the “rich character work supported by a great deal of humanity and understanding of pain and loss that girds the play’s craziness.”
In promotional material the play is described to be about truth and integrity; I ask Henley if she has a political message for our times when these values are such “hot topics.” She doesn’t feel that she does, but questions our tumultuous times. “The play is not written out of the anxiety of our times,” she says, “but more out of wondering and anger.” Her personal escape is to read poetry: “something written in a moment that somehow has something sublime in it. It kind of inspires me and helps to transcend the worries.”
Knowing that Henley has two sisters back in Mississippi where she was born, it’s not hard to imagine her as one of the “Crimes of the Heart” sisters, grown older. But she looks exceedingly youthful for someone who has just celebrated her 54th birthday. She is petite and shy, and is wearing a baggy sweatshirt emblazoned “Jackson Mississippi.” She tells me that she had purchased it in the Jackson airport to take to her son, but had borrowed it.
It’s hard to imagine that she looked very different when she was a college student at Southern Methodist University where she graduated in 1974 with a BFA in theater. Her original plan was to be an actress. As a youngster, she had seen her mother performing in plays like “Hatful of Rain” and as Laura in “Glass Managerie.” One might consider her father also in a theatrical venue as he was a lawyer. Her sisters are wives and mothers living still in Jackson but one did some acting and the other once wrote a play. Henley says that she isn’t in close contact with her sisters but that she hopes to go south for a big family reunion later this month.
In college she studied all the theater arts from acting to history to stage combat to playwriting. The latter was a magical turning point for her. She wrote a short play that was produced at the university’s Margo Jones Theater. Not only learning her craft from playwriting classes, she also took advantage of all the theater around her, including listening to onstage dialogue from the prop table backstage or whatever her crew work was for that production. When she performed in the Moliere play “The Library,” she used that as an opportunity “to notice the structure, how he does it.” Learning a Shakespeare monologue, she says, “you study the precise and unique use of language as you memorize the lines.”
After her first giant success in New York, the next two plays produced there, “The Wake of Jamie Foster” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” were not as successful. The latter was also made into a movie starring Holly Hunter. Since then she has written a number of plays, three of which reflect her California setting, and even moving into some experimentally structured plays. Purposefully avoiding the critical New York theatrer scene, she was again “burned” when her play “Family Week” was produced in 2000 at the Signature Theater and was trounced by the critics. That was about the time that McCarter commissioned her to write the current play, which was a needed boost to her confidence.
She thinks of herself primarily as a playwright but work on television and film scripts has helped pay her bills. Among these are the TV movies “It Must Be Love” with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, and two teleplays that starred Rosanna Arquette: “Nobody’s Fool” and “A Family Tree,” part of the PBS series, “Trying Times.”
In fact, having lived most of her adult life in Los Angeles, she has become sort of a “California girl.” Her days entail of taking care of her son and going to her office to write from 9 to 5, where she works on a script or writes in her journal. This regimen is broken with infusions of yoga classes and trips to a “zero balancing guy who moves your energy around and sometimes gives you acupuncture treatments.” She also writes at night after Patrick is asleep. Obviously, the focus of her life is her son, and she loves doing things with him. They often walk to a bookstore, she says, where he reads comic books and “I read other stuff.”
Her forays into the role of “school mom” have changed her life. “I enjoy making him happy.” She has been known to volunteer to serve lunches but she feels that baking cupcakes for classmates is beyond her abilities. “I don’t have a knack. You know I’m not good at shopping. I’m not good at laundry. I’m not good at gardening. I’m not a very practical sort of person. So that’s why I like to be alone in a room doing what I do know how to do, writing a line or seeing a character. But in most of your life that doesn’t count for much.
“Before I had Patrick I spent more of my life at what I’m good at but now I’m doing things I’m not good at, and I realize what a blow to the ego that is. It’s humbling.” But I believe the glow in her eyes when she thinks about this. “I’m very happy. Patrick is just a joy.”
I ask her what specifically he has brought to her life that outweighs the unbaked cupcakes. She answers, “Someone who you are allowed to love so much,” she smiles and adds, “against his will.” She has to add that quirky ending.
Ridiculous Fraud, previews Wednesday and Thursday, May 10 and 11; opening night, Friday, May 12, the Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. World premiere of Beth Henley’s bittersweet comedy. Through Sunday, June 11. $40 and $48. 609-258-2787.