Onstage: Forces at Work

Carson Kreitzer is back at the Playhouse with a play about an unthinkable subject

Feb 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Playhouse In The PArk

Finger on the pulse: Playwright Carson Kreitzer draws inspirations from newsworthy subjects.

Carson Kreitzer doesn't take playwriting lightly. "I think I write plays rather than picking up a gun," she tells me in a recent conversation about her upcoming world premiere, 1:23, opening this week at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Four years ago her play The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer won critical praise — in addition to the Playhouse's annual new play prize.

1:23 (Kreitzer's title reflects a time of day) explores how some people do unimaginable, even unthinkable, things. The play portrays several women driven to drown their children. No simple answers are forthcoming; Kreitzer instead hopes that her play causes audiences to detect the complexity of these women's circumstances and psyches. Without becoming an apologist, she hopes her play makes people think before condemning these women as villains and objects of scorn.

"The most important thing," she says, "is to humanize these women. Part of my fascination with these stories is our tendency to want easy answers and therefore to completely villainize these women. Both Susan Smith and Andrea Yates had this tremendous outpouring of anger toward them, this idea that they were evil and that they should be killed.

I don't know if my play is in any way a vehicle for change, but that is my most profound hope — that we as a society maybe can do something about this. The tragedy really does not boil down to, 'This woman has killed her children, she is evil and we should kill her.' This keeps happening. Clearly there are forces at work."

When 1:23 begins, a mother appears on a television screen pleading for the return of her two young children, the incidental victims of a carjacking. But as details of Susan Smith's story are examined more closely, her tale falls apart. It turns out the nondescript black carjacker is a figment of her imagination — and an explanation that TV viewers were ready to accept.

The play then moves to another time, showing a police sergeant interrogating Andrea Yates about how she drowned her five children. Calmly and with almost no emotion, she describes how, one by one, she forced each child face down in a bathtub full of water. Kreitzer's script blends these actual cases with flights of fancy.

Kreitzer began writing plays while an undergraduate at Yale University. Her first script, Valerie Shoots Andy, was written before her 1991 graduation and produced professionally in 1993, about two years before the film about Valerie Solanas' attempted assassination of artist Andy Warhol.

Kreitzer seems to have a prescience about subject matter. Her 2001 play Self Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen was a story centering on Aileen Wuornos, the serial-killing prostitute about whom a 2003 film, Monster, won Charlize Theron an Academy Award.

But it wasn't frustration over failing to capture the wave of public interest that drove Kreitzer to playwriting. She had aspired to be an actress.

"I was frustrated with the roles that were available for actresses," she says. "It seemed like my universe was rather smaller than I wanted it to be."

She took a stab at directing and deconstructed several classics, focusing on the roles of women.

"The first thing I directed was Jean Genet's The Balcony, which I staged on four sides surrounding the audience," she says. "When the whores were not onstage and interacting with clients, they were still present, living their lives, eating a sandwich or filing their nails. I was interested in pointing out where the women were not in the traditional sense."

When several friends asked her, "Why don't you write the plays that you would want to direct?" she rose to the challenge.

"I thought, 'Oh, that sounds really difficult,' " she laughs. "And sure enough it is! Playwriting is the hardest thing I have ever done. But I was instantly hooked."

With about a dozen plays in her portfolio now, Kreitzer has steadily found inspiration in actual people and events. Her Playhouse premiere in 2003 explored the inner world of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist whose high-minded ways nevertheless resulted in the horrific potential of nuclear holocaust. (Ironically, just two years after her Oppenheimer play, composer John Adams' Doctor Atomic — about some of the same events — made its debut. Again, it appears she had her finger on the pulse of newsworthy subjects.)

Why write about such people?

"It's always something that I'm arrested by and don't quite understand," Kreitzer explains, "events that I need to dig into to say, 'How did this happen?' "

Her new play, 1:23, was inspired by a transcript of Yates' confession.

"A friend of mine actually sent me a link to (it) on the Internet," she recalls, "and said, 'Hey, Carson, when is your Andrea Yates play happening?' "

She was at first taken aback.

"I just don't write a play about every horrible thing a woman does! But I clicked the link, and it was pages and pages of transcripts. I said to myself, 'Hey, this is really good!' But at the end of the document, you understand no more about how this could have happened than at the beginning. It's a very straight-ahead recital of facts into how this absolutely apocalyptic thing could have happened in a suburban bedroom one morning. The last words on the tape are, 'OK, it's 1:23 in the afternoon and I'm gonna stop the tape.' "

Kreitzer knows that her subjects are tough, but she feels they're important and worth exploring.

"I take very seriously the act of asking people to sit in the dark for an hour-and-a-half or two hours," she says.

1:23 should be a tough but provocative sit in the dark.

1:23, presented in its world premiere by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through March 4.