I was rummaging through my dear deceased wife’s belongings, when I uncovered a hidden treasure ““ a never before seen copy of a play entitled Nightsong for the Boatman by Jovanka Bach, which she had written over 20 years ago and filed away without telling me about it. And when I read it I was utterly amazed. I immediately went into production with the piece, which I found as fascinating as the best works of Albee, Beckett and Ionesco.
It deals with a character she called Harry Appleman, an aging, alcoholic, washed-up poet who plays dice with fate and loses. He is called upon to make a mysterious boat trip, by voices from the wilderness, but through various cunning contrivances he tries to avoid his mortality. Then he discovers his humanity when he learns he can’t sacrifice his daughter Jessie for the boat trip but a tricky graduate student Gordon Levy will do instead.
My wife Jovanka passed away in 2006. She died in my arms after a lengthy battle with cancer. “Dr. Bach” was both a physician and playwright who managed to successfully write over a dozen plays, short stories and two novels while working as a full time medical practitioner in Los Angeles.
I first met her in 1977 at the Coronet Theatre in Hollywood where I was performing my one man show An Evening With Stephen Leacock. She came up to me after the show and said I gave her a lot of laughs. She wanted to know about my background and why my name was Stark when in fact the program stated I was of Yugoslavian background.
I quickly retorted with: “When I was in elementary school in Canada, the kids couldn’t pronounce my real name, Starcevich, and called me “Son of a Bitch” instead so I immediately changed my name to Stark. She laughed and said she had changed her name too, from Bachevich to Bach, but she wouldn’t go into why she changed it.
We got married shortly afterwards and spent our honeymoon in Dubrovnik. And so a lifelong relationship began with me staging her plays. The most satisfying moment for Jovanka was when we went to New York to see the opening of her play Name Day. She was very ill and weak and could hardly manage to get on the plane. When she saw the off Broadway New York production, which the New York Times compared to the best works of Arthur Miller, tears came to her eyes and she said, “Thank you, John, thank you so much for what you have done for me.”
At last she had gained the recognition she so deservedly needed. I went on to stage many of her works at the Odyssey Theatre. Her “Balkan Trilogy,” an ambitious undertaking covering three plays that chronicle the rise and fall of Yugoslavia both under Tito and the present regime, has been widely acclaimed with successful productions at the Odyssey and off-Broadway at the Barrow Group Theatre. Her play O’Neill’s Ghosts has been likened to Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, and is in fact a sequel to that play about the O’Neill family. I revived an early play she had written entitled Sylvie at the Odyssey, then successfully staged it in Las Vegas. I also revived Mercy Warren’s Tea which was chosen Best Drama when it was originally broadcast on American Public Radio in 1977.
Just before passing away, Jovanka completed a beautiful trilogy of children’s short stories entitled “Paddy the Flat-Footed Platypus” and two short stories, “My Mother’s Hair” and “Where the Wildflowers Blooms.” I found them on a dictating machine she kept in her hospital bed and I managed to retrieve them. I hope to locate a publisher for those works.
Currently Nightsong for the Boatman is playing at the Odyssey Theatre until Dec. 12 and then we open in New York at the off Broadway Barrow Group Theatre on Jan. 6 for a limited engagement. Her play Chekhov and Maria, which won rave reviews from all the New York press when I staged it there in 2006, prompted me to make it into a motion picture. It is now airing on Super Channel Canada and coming up soon on PBS TV and Russian TV. I hope and pray she is “up there” taking it all in and enjoying every minute of it.
Production photos by Miriam Geer Photography.
Nightsong for the Boatman, presented by John Stark Productions as a visiting guest production, plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through Dec. 12. Tickets: $18. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; 310.477.255. For more information, film clips and reviews visit www.JohnStarkProductions.com.