Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Heavens Are Hung in Black

One of the best things about being a writer is having friends that are writers and being privy to their creative process along with your own. This is especially true when a writer-friend is a playwright and you get to see the early draft of a script that you read (and loved) come to life, deepened and polished, on the stage. Better yet, as the “date” of said playwright on opening night.

I met James Still about ten years ago, when he became the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Just before his first visit to Indianapolis in that role, he happened upon my book, Stranded in Harmony, in his library in L.A. He liked it, and asked Janet Allen, the artistic director, if she knew me. She did; Janet Allen knows everybody. She invited me to come down to the theatre and meet him. We were friends instantaneously, real friends, and we’ve been friends ever since. In fact, over the years, I’ve come to think of James as a kind of cosmic brother.

Friday evening, I had the privilege of being his “date” for the opening of his amazing new play, “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” also the opening of IRT’s season. He was kind of a wreck, which I found endearing and which also made it all seem more exciting, more real.

He was the playwright, for Pete’s Sake! I grew up in “The Region” in one of those dreadful subdivisions full of ticky-tacky houses that sprang up after the War. I had nothing but library books and the dreams they set spinning in my head. In high school, I read Moss Harts’ Act One and the world of writing plays and opening nights and agonizing over what the critics would say made its way into the mix. And here I was, living what I had imagined.

I loved “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” when I read a draft of it several years ago. I could feel James’s wrestling with this rich, unwieldy material in the text. I was astonished and humbled by the depth of his knowledge and insight about Abraham Lincoln and by the fact that there was something in this play about Lincoln that seemed absolutely new. The ending gave me that cold feeling in my head that I get when I know something’s really, really, really good.

And, to be honest, with that came the moment of despair that inevitably follows such a response. Will I ever write anything this good myself?

But the play, seeing the play! The set was gorgeous, as IRT’s sets always are. The actors perfectly cast. Lincoln was Lincoln for those few hours.

I was intensely conscious of James sitting beside me as we watched the play together. Sometimes I felt him noticing a glitch or being aggravated by people down the row, whispering. Sometimes he laughed along with the audience, which pleased me so much, because I knew he was living in the play, as we were.

How strange it must be to see your characters come to life before you, I thought; how wonderful and harrowing the visible response. It’s nothing like sailing your novel out into the world, then waiting the good, bad, or (worse) nonexistent news of its reception in the safety and privacy of your writing room.

The response to “The Heavens Hung in Black” was exactly what any playwright would hope for. The theatre was abuzz at intermission, people excited about what they were seeing, marveling at the performances, remarking on particular details—and on the play’s timeliness, as our country is poised on the brink of a war as likely to tear us apart as did the Civil War, and Vietnam.

Afterwards, James invited me to join the company for the celebratory toast, an IRT tradition on opening nights. The cast was crowded in a tiny, dimly lit room, some still hurrying down the hall half-dressed. Mary Todd Lincoln wore a bathrobe; Lincoln lounged in a chair, grinning. Glasses of champagne were set out on a low table—and when everyone had gathered, they were distributed and the toasts began.

I toasted, too. To my cosmic brother James, to the cast, to the IRT—and, secretly, to a long ago flight of imagination made real.

The play runs through October 25. See it, if you can! For tickets visit www.irtlive.com

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