Either end of the spectrum of life—childhood and old age—come to New York City stages this fall, and both will be courtesy of Small Mouth Sounds playwright Bess Wohl.
She’ll make her Broadway debut in December with the Leigh Silverman–helmed Grand Horizons, about a couple of 50 years whose family is sent reeling when one wants out, but first comes the child-centric Make Believe, currently running Off-Broadway at Second Stage, directed by Michael Greif.
“My daughter was about four when she said to me, ‘When you die, can I have your iPhone?’” Wohl says with a laugh. “Kids are so dark and complicated and observing so much more than we give them credit for. And at the same time have no idea what’s going on.”
That’s both a theme of the play and also an explanation of why Wohl wrote the first act specifically for child actors. Seeing a prolonged trend of older performers playing younger, Wohl consciously set out to write something that could only be brought to life by children; the second act sees those same characters, now adults, revisiting their childhood home.
“When [an audience] sees children onstage, they’re very primed to laugh at the kids because they are funny and adorable,” she says. “But I also think it’s important, once everyone gets that out of their system, to allow the children to have real stakes and real terror and real drama to them.”
In Make Believe, the Conlee children—ages five to 10—play house in their attic playroom in the aftermath of parental disappearance; decades later, they’re still struggling for answers.
“I think I was inspired by the children in A Doll’s House, how you see them run through a few times but you don’t really meet them,” Wohl says. “So I thought, years ago, ‘Maybe I should write a sequel to A Doll’s House.’ And then that became not a great idea for obvious reasons!”
Instead Wohl wrote a play about a mother leaving, told from the children’s point of view and set in the 1980s, the world of Wohl’s own childhood.
“In the play, that idea of kids being totally perceptive and totally lost is something I’m trying to explore in the adult characters,” she says. “What the play is attempting to explain is that nothing is solved when you grow up.”