This playwright’s specialty is ditzy, neurotic Southern women. If the first name that pops into your mind is Beth Henley, you’re not alone. In works like her Pulitzer-winning Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, Mississippi-born Henley has made a specialty of endearing crackpots, belles on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- or a revelatory breakthrough. But consigning Henley to one specific genre is neither fair nor accurate, as a chat with the playwright -- whose latest play, Family Week, is set in Arizona -- makes clear.
Playbill On-Line: Is there a "Beth Henley-style" play, and if there is, do you write with it in mind, or try to veer away from it?
Beth Henley: There’s a perception of my work that isn’t the full picture, because a lot of my later plays have not been done in New York. I’ve really experimented with styles. For example, I wrote L-Play, which is twelve different scenes done in different styles. The only unifying factor is that all the scenes start with the letter “L”: Loser, Loss, Lunatic, etc. It’s about the fragmented nature of this world. The piece opened the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Festival. I also wrote Control Freaks, which was done in Chicago, L.A. and London. That was very much into being theatrical and not naturalistic. For example, a woman is in the kitchen with a skillet, only she’s blowing bubbles and her husband is eating bubbles with a fork. There’s also a contraption that flies over the audience. It mixes elements that were real and fake-real and obscure real.
PBOL: What about the perception of you as a "Southern" writer?
BH: If that means --- I don’t know what that means. If it means I only set plays in the South, then it’s not true. Does it just mean that I’m from the South?
PBOL: Even if that were the distinction, your theatre influences weren’t especially "Southern."
BH: My mother was in theatre in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was raised. And I remember seeing the set for Hatful of Rain. My father was in the jury of Inherit The Wind. I remember, we had to sit through the whole thing to watch him say one line. As far as writers who’ve influenced my work, I’d say: Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams.
PBOL: Do you remember the first play you ever wrote?
BH: I was in the sixth grade, and it was called, Swing High, Swing Low. I did it as a summer project with my friends. The song "Hello, Dolly!" was in it, because a suburban girl goes to Bohemia, and the people in the coffee shop sing that to her. The show was only rehearsed, never performed. Everything ended in acrimony. People were upset they didn’t have more to do. And we made the big mistake of getting boys involved. That just erupted into chaos, and as a director I wasn’t able to handle it. My second play, Am I Blue, was produced at my college, Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That’s when I learned it was fun to write plays. But I was so insecure about being a writer, I wrote under the pseudonym "Amy Peach"; too shy to have my real name on it. PBOL: How did Blue do?
BH: It was a companion piece to The Bridgehead by Frederick Bailey, about the U.S. Army secretly invading Cambodia. It opened with an execution on stage. My play was about two virgins in the New Orleans French quarter. It was an odd double bill.
PBOL: After that, it was Manhattan Theatre Club that really nurtured your work.
BH: Yes, they did Crimes, Firecracker, Lucky Spot, Abundance and The Debutante Ball.
PBOL: Do you wonder what you might have been if the playwriting hadn’t worked out?
BH: I was lucky because I got plays done early. I can’t imagine what I would do otherwise; I’m very bad at being employed. My "real" jobs were short-lived and agonizing. I used to file things for Bank Americard. I did cold storage billing at Alpo. I was at TRW sorting computer cards in the basement.
PBOL: Winning the Pulitzer changed all that, of course. But did it significantly affect your writing style or habits?
BH: The Pulitzer was really good because it encouraged me to keep going. If you write play after play and it doesn’t get produced or acknowledged, it gets tougher. The award definitely affected my life and personal life more than I really wanted to admit. But writing it made me work harder. When I have a play produced, I want to have another one written. I try to keep up that pattern, so while one play is going up, you’re already lost in another world of pure imagination.
PBOL: And do you have a new work of "pure imagination" ready and waiting?
BH: I’m afraid I’m a little behind on my next play, which is still untitled. I think it’s about loneliness.
PBOL: You still stay part of the current play’s production process?
BH: Absolutely. I can never really stop working on [a play] until I see it in production and hear the audience response. The process even continues post-opening. That’s the great thing about theatre being a collaborative art. For example, early on in Crimes of the Heart, director J. Ranelli came up with an ending that had the women in a freeze frame in golden light, with a horn playing. I just sort of had the play awkwardly fading out on them smashing a cake. On Family Week, I’ve been making changes all along. I did a workshop with [director] Ulu Grosbard last summer, and we’ve been trading phone calls and talking about things.
PBOL: What was the impetus for the new piece, which is about a woman dealing with her family while coping with the loss of a child?
BH: I don’t really want to talk about the personal stuff, but I was obsessing on the theme of tragedy in peoples’ lives. How families deal with hardship and recover from it. When things aren’t fixable, there’s the effort to stand by each other. It’s about there being complex family history, but people still show up when the chips are down.
-- By David Lefkowitz