Let’s answer the inevitable question about local roots: Playwright Theresa Rebeck grew up in Kenwood and graduated from Ursuline Academy. But she’s made her career as a writer for theater and television series like Brooklyn Bridge, LA Law, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and NYPD Blue. Her plays have previously been onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park — Bad Dates (2005) about a divorced woman coming back to life was a big hit, and The Understudy (2010), a dishy backstage tale, was well received, too.
She got acquainted with Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern when Bad Dates was being produced. “I told him how much I’d like to premiere a play in Cincinnati because my roots here are really strong. He thought it was a great idea.”
Given her family’s local lineage back to the early 19th century, she imagined a historical piece. But nothing clicked. “At some point, I thought, ‘Why don’t you just write about Cincinnati as you know it, as you grew up in it?’ Once I came to a more contemporary idea for the story, everything fell into place.” The resulting play, Dead Accounts, gets its world premiere at the Mount Adams theater this week.
It’s set in Cincinnati, amid a family of adult siblings. Prodigal son Jack is on the lam from a dissolving marriage and some financial irregularities in New York City, while sister Lorna’s life is on hold as she keeps an eye on their aging parents. Hiding out in suburban Ohio with a big wad of cash, Jack loses himself in Graeter’s Ice Cream and Skyline Chili.
While there’s nothing autobiographical about Dead Accounts, Rebeck says, “It’s sort of like my personal life turned on its head.” As with Jack and Lorna, Rebeck comes from a family of five siblings. As adults, she observes, “Every time something happens, everybody gets on the phone and calls each other. There’s that kind of chaos of living in a world of siblings that totally informs the play. I like the energy that a brother and sister have — it’s so deep and passionate and real and kindhearted. They come from a family, and they were each other’s favorites.
Beyond that dynamic, Rebeck’s play explores the polarities of life in contemporary America. It’s complicated, she says, “to be so thoroughly from the Midwest but to settle on the East Coast. I always feel like a child of two lands. You don’t fit into either place. We have such different value systems that we’re confounded by each other. Every time I came to Cincinnati some relative ends up saying, ‘Oh, you East Coasters!’ And back in New York people say, ‘Oh, you’re from the Midwest.’ That became interesting to me and was the beginning of the idea for the play.”
She says her play “is most definitely a love letter to Cincinnati, to the great authenticity and good heartedness that’s there.” But she imagines that it could appeal to audiences in other cities. “I have this fantasy that if you would do this play in St. Louis, you would fill in other local references. If you did it in Chicago it would be a different kind of pizza.”
America’s financial woes are also a factor in Dead Accounts. “It was very much a part of the story I wanted to tell,” Rebeck says. “It’s really tied into questions about America’s moral center and what I’ve seen happen to the country in the last 20 years. We’ve become a nation where shame has no place.”
An acquaintance from the financial world became Rebeck’s model for Jack. “He says he knew they were threatening the global economy. They knew the consequences of their actions — and they proceeded anyway. He seemed to have no reaction to it. I found it really interesting to think about what has happened to the moral imagination in America.”
But at its most elemental level, Dead Accounts gave Rebeck a chance to extol the virtues of some of her favorite Cincinnati cuisine. She’s especially drawn to cheese coneys (Jack’s speech praising them is really her own appraisal) and Graeter’s caramel ice cream. “It’s my drug of choice,” she confesses, “but I’m also very, very, very fond of plain old vanilla.”
There’s nothing plain old vanilla about Theresa Rebeck. Once Dead Accounts opens, she heads back to New York where she’s the head writer and an executive producer of a new TV series, Smash, about the challenges of creating and producing a Broadway musical. It debuts on NBC Feb. 6.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]