Suicide isn’t funny. But when I was hired to direct the West Coast premiere of Edward Anthony’s Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath for Rogue Machine Theatre, I was indeed asked to generate a production where the tone of one woman’s journey toward suicide could be, at times, lured away from its tragic core and exist in a place of comedy.
As I got to know the play more and more,Â my vision of it was becoming reminiscent of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. As a boy I was enamored of Pee Wee and his wonderful Playhouse, and as a teen I read Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel that is central to the play. Could I place the play inside a Pee Wee’s Playhouse environment and have it retain its weight? As I began to hire designers and of course the actress to play my lead, that became my main focus.
As most of us know, Sylvia Plath committed suicide inside her gas oven when she was in her early 30s. Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath is the story of suicide-destined Esther Greenwood (Plath’s heroine from her novel The Bell Jar) as she recounts the highs/lows of her life ““ which, like The Bell Jar. are clearly moments reflected from Plath’s life. In the play, unlike the novel, Esther’s reality is a quirky, raunchy and satirical one, and yes ““ of course ““ throughout the play it carries a much more serious and sad tone under its thick candy-coating.
Nobody close to me has ever committed suicide, but obviously I knew I had to be careful. Offending people was not the goal here and proceeding with acute sensitivity was a must. When I found Amy Davidson (perhaps best known for her portrayal of Kerry Hennessy, the youngest daughter on the hit TV show 8 Simple Rules) I was reassured.
Amy walks a tightrope throughout the play, balancing between moments of comedy and tragedy, without letting one dilute the other. I knew, after working with her, the audience would stay connected with her journey on a deep level, one that would invite them to enter not only the clear tragedy of suicide but also the wackiness of Esther Greenwood’s mental state.
Not unlike my Son of Semele productions of The Designated Mourner and On Emotion, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath is a technical challenge. The Pee Wee-ish set, the magical video, the consistent underscore, surreal tone and extreme characterizations are all in support of one thing”¦ to create a night of theater that transports the audience into a place where the comedy of this play makes its inherent tragedy all the more palpable.
Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, presented by Rogue Machine Theatre, plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm (no performance March 17); through April 17. Tickets: $25. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.com.
MATTHEW McCRAY is a director, playwright, producer and performer.Â As a director his work includes the Los Angeles premiere ofÂ The Designated Mourner (Critic’s Pick, LA Times), Iphigenia…A Rave Fable (winner of four LA Weekly Awards) andÂ On Emotion at Son of Semele. Past directing also includes a workshop of his original playÂ Fencerow to Fencerow at Center Theatre Group,Â Lear’s Wild Rose at CalArts,Â Amended at REDCAT andÂ What the Moon Saw at Chapman University. Past performance work includes shows at REDCAT, Musical Theatre West, Reprise!, Disney and Overtone Industries as well as appearances onÂ Boston Legal, The Cure (pilot),Â The Commission (with Martin Sheen, Martin Landau and Edward Asner) and his recurring role of Jasper onÂ Will & Grace.Â Since 2000, he has served asÂ the artistic director of Son of Semele Ensemble and in 2003 accepted an Ovation Award for SOSE’sÂ Animal Farm.