A pair of Ethans prowl Chicago stages this season. One is a hulking “ruin of a man” in his fifties, tending miserably to a sick wife and her poor relation in a crumbling rural farmhouse. The other is a glib, charming 24-year-old, umbilically attached to his iPhone, who has managed to turn a tell-all sex blog into a New York Timesbestseller. Centuries and sensibilities apart, these two flawed male leads couldn’t be more different—but they are literary cousins, photo-negative twins, linked by the unique theatre auteur who has brought them to the stage.
That the talented and prolific Laura Eason is directing her own adaptation of Edith Wharton’s smoldering tearjerker Ethan Frome at her home company, the Lookingglass Theatre Company (Feb. 23–April 17), will surprise no one who’s followed her auspicious Chicago–based career. Her adaptations of literary classics have opened doors beyond Lookingglass and beyond her hometown, from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, to Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, to Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theater Company. But nothing on Eason’s résumé—not her deft, spirited, often family-friendly theatricalizations of Dickens or Twain, not her work as an actress and onetime artistic director at Lookingglass, not even her stint as a Chicago indie rocker—has prepared the world for the formidable playwright who has just unsheathed the sharply contemporary, quietly ferocious two-hander Sex with Strangers, now at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre through May 15.
In this uncannily knowing look at our current social-media moment and the ways it has upended our notions of intimacy and ambition, Eason hurls young, precocious, self-described “asshole” author Ethan Strange into the stalled path of Olivia Lago, a pushing-40 writer bruised by the indifferent reaction to her one early novel, and lets the sparks fly. In two lean but meaty acts, Sex with Strangers—also the title of Ethan’s crass bestseller—traces these unlikely lovers through a bumpy, headlong affair whose milestones and power dynamics are reshuffled by our age of anything-goes oversharing and self-publishing. In this brave new world, sex doesn’t just precede dinner and a movie—it’s also a prelude to the blog post and the Facebook tag.
When the play bowed in a workshop production at Steppenwolf’s First Look Festival in the summer of 2009,Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones flagged it as “the next red-hot Chicago play…the best drama I’ve seen about the seismic changes in the arts-media landscape.” It was such a hit in that incarnation, in fact, that Steppenwolf fast-tracked it directly to its subscription season.
As a longtime observer of Eason’s work on Chicago stages, Jones says he was surprised by the play’s vehemence.
“Here’s an actor and a writer I’ve been watching for years, whose actual personal voice had been somewhat subjugated in her ensemble work,” Jones says. “The Lookingglass aesthetic is nuanced, artistic, somewhat distanced. And all of a sudden here was this gutsy, raw play. There was a certain level of anger in it.”
Admits Polly K. Carl, Steppenwolf’s director of artistic development, “I find that two-handers can be hard to track for very long—it gets tiring to watch two people talk the whole time. But I can’t get enough of these two characters; I’m so interested in them, and that’s the kind of investment you need.”
Sex with Strangers is just the high point of a heady season for Eason. In addition to Ethan Frome, this month her lively, fleet-footed adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—commissioned and premiered to great acclaim last April at Hartford Stage—opens at People’s Light & Theatre in Philadelphia. In April, she’ll contribute a short play at Louisville’s Humana Festival, and in July, she’ll premiere a new play, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, in a one-night-only production by New York’s Rising Phoenix Repertory.
She’s also shopping a striking new three-hander called Plainfield Ace for a possible commercial production. Add a new-play commission from Denver Center Theatre Company and two assignments to write books for musicals, and you have one busy, even overcommitted full-time playwright (and incidentally, the mother of a one-year-old, Ellee).
There are no overnight successes in show business, of course, but what is remarkable about Eason’s rise is that it has happened both slowly and quickly, along separate tracks that have at last aligned. She began in the early 1990s as an actor at Lookingglass, coming in from a Northwestern University-schooled faction under the tutelage of a rising directing star, Mary Zimmerman, who would eventually join the company and create some of its defining work (The Arabian Nights, Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci). Inspired in part by Zimmerman’s example, the company’s young female artists began to “let ourselves try other things,” recalls Joy Gregory, whose writing credits at Lookingglass include The Shaggs and Race. “About five years in, suddenly it was on the table that anyone could pitch their own piece, based on their own interests. That was a really intoxicating moment.”
Andy White, a Lookingglass founding member and current artistic director, puts it this way: “In the early ’90s, the company’s machismo was called on the carpet, and the women in the company really demanded and were given the reins.” It was into that window of opportunity, in 1993, that Eason leapt with an original piece, In the Eye of the Beholder, a work her colleague Gregory describes as “an exploration of feminist ideas of the time—about fear and feeling unsafe on the street.” A hit for the company, the show nevertheless was a bit of a fluke, as Lookingglass would become known for producing world-premiere literary adaptations, not original plays. And, Eason now says, “I don’t know that I really learned that much from it, because everything was so instinctual. The next play I tried to do that way, which didn’t go as well, was the one I learned a lot from.”
That play, 28, subtitled “pictures of life in a high-tech world,” hit the stage five years later, in 1998, and the experience was so painful for Eason that she only worked up the nerve to look at the reviews a few years ago. “The show was fine—it wasn’t this grand disaster, but during the process of it, I knew it wasn’t going well, and I didn’t have the tools to fix it.”
The years leading up to 28 hadn’t been so easy on Eason the writer, either. “We were pretty hard on her for a while,” concedes Phil Smith, Lookingglass’s producing artistic director, who stars this month as Ethan Frome. “She pitched shows for about four or five years, and we didn’t take them. That was a frustrating experience for her. She took the criticism to heart, but she didn’t believe all of it, thank God. She also became a better writer. To hone your craft without success sometimes is really important.”
Mary Zimmerman remembers those years a little differently. “I feel like she was on stage every season as an actor or a director, but maybe not with the shows that were closest to her heart—the ones that were smaller, more intimate.”
When Lookingglass took Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights to Los Angeles in 1998, Eason ended up staying for a while. Though she says she learned a fair amount about story structure from working there as a film script reader, L.A. felt like a foreign country. “I felt probably as if I would have felt if I had been left in downtown Beijing,” she recalls. “It was like, I don’t get this place, I don’t speak the language.” She returned to Chicago, and to the artistic director post at Lookingglass, in 2000, at a crucial point for the itinerant company, which was embarking on its first capital campaign to acquire its own space. In 2003, the company opened a beautiful multitheatre venue in Chicago’s Water Tower Water Works building, and Eason says, “As we walked through the theatre, I just cried. That’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve been involved in.”
It’s an achievement that Zimmerman, for one, feels hasn’t been sufficiently recognized.
“Someone published a list of the 100 most important people in Chicago theatre that year, and she wasn’t even on it,” Zimmerman marvels. She attributes the oversight in part to her company’s almost perverse selflessness, an extreme version of the famed Chicago ensemble ethic. “Lookingglass has this weirdly, overly modest self-image,” she says. “In our own minds, we’re all still in college, we’re all just beginning.”
That collectivist cocoon, though, proved to be an excellent place to grow. Eason honed her skills as a savvy leader in the boardroom and a masterful collaborator in the rehearsal room. Meanwhile, she was banking her playwriting fires, channeling them into a cottage industry in literary adaptation that has proved rewarding not just financially but creatively.
Then, when she and her husband, actor Erik Lochtefeld, moved to Brooklyn in 2005, Eason dusted off those original plays and her growing Rolodex, and began in earnest to build a full-time playwriting career. She has done so with a speed that’s amazed if not quite surprised her colleagues. As Lookingglass’s Phil Smith says, “She’s an incredibly hard worker, one of the most industrious people I know.” And if the work she’s made since her rebirth as a New York playwright has a disarming maturity—like a shiny new gadget which, upon inspection, proves to be surprisingly sturdy and well made—it’s because her extraordinary plays are just that: the more-or-less brand new products of a well-seasoned and far-ranging theatrical intelligence.
“Laura writes for the theatre,” says Jessica Thebus, who has directed several of Eason’s plays, including Sex with Strangers, and who met Eason when they were both kids at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill. “She’s an actor, a performer, she has taught, she’s been an artistic director, she’s been part of an ensemble that co-creates. Her eclecticism is as much in her multiple roles as in the different styles she writes in, and that background makes her able to slip between one form and another: She’s got directorial ideas, even as she’s also figuring out how to market it.”
Her directorial chops have been sharpened especially by her literary adaptations, which, influenced by Lookingglass’s physically rangy epic-theatre style, are hardly musty page-to-stage transfers.
“The way you move through time and space in an adaptation is really different from in a regular play,” Eason explains. “So the direction also works very differently, in terms of how you are telling the story, in terms of physicality and how you’re moving through transitions.” Even when she’s not directing her own adaptations, then, she “directs” certain scenes on the page as much as she writes them. In her Ethan Frome, for instance, a flashback is indicated by the “suggestion of tree branches on the back wall slowly shrink[ing],” and the story’s iconic triangle—between the dutiful Ethan, his hypochondriac wife Zeena and her young cousin Mattie—is shown to the narrator in the stark, simple image of the two women in silhouette, one “droning quietly,” the other still.
Jeremy B. Cohen, producing artistic director at Minneapolis’s Playwrights Center, commissioned Eason to do her new adaptation of Tom Sawyer for Hartford Stage when he worked there. He also directed it but fully welcomed the directorial sensibility she brought to the script.
“There’s a spectrum of fancifulness in a lot of story theatre that sort of stays above the neck—it’s really intellectual, and it just plays into iconic truths we’ve come to know about iconic works of fiction,” says Cohen. “What Laura does is bring an emotional and psychological richness and density to the work that sometimes adaptations tend to skip over, like they’re skipping rocks across the water. Her adaptations have a lightness but also some meat to them.”
What marks all her work, adaptations and originals alike, Cohen feels, is “a kind of aching soulfulness in the characters that she’s really drawn to.” Concurs her agent, Morgan Jenness, “She really knows how to translate the various kinds of human longing—for a better world, for a definition of value, for a place in the world.”
A colder word for longing, or for acting on one’s longings, might be ambition. And that circles back to both the themes and the genesis of her breakthrough play, Sex with Strangers. The character of the blogger/memoirist Ethan, after all, owes his meteoric rise in part to that same eyebrow-raising title. As Steppenwolf’s Polly Carl puts it: “Almost every playwright I know who writes a two-hander and puts Sex in the title is after a bigger profile. So Laura is mirroring a bit of Ethan as a character, but she can’t help but be a better writer than that.”
Eason openly calls her motivation “Machiavellian”: “I had written a few big-cast plays, and people were like, ‘There’s seven people, we can’t do your show,’ or, ‘It rains onstage, it’s too hard to produce.’ So I was like: Okay, I’m going to write a two-character play in one room that’s eminently produceable.” The first draft, she concedes, was “hideous, like a bad version of a Neil LaBute play—the insincerity, the doing-it-for-the-sake-of-doing-it, was on every page. I wrote to a friend, ‘I think I’m writing a play that even I wouldn’t wanna see.'”
But before she tossed the idea altogether, she gave it another try and spotted the problem. “I was becoming a victim of my own idea of what it needed to be. I thought, that’s sort of interesting for a character, if you feel trapped by what you think something should be.”
This claustrophobia came to apply not only to cocksure Ethan, who worries that he’ll be condemned forever by his success as a sort of literary sideshow, but to the cagey Olivia, whose own ambitions—submerged in layers of doubt and fear of insignicance—are awakened by Ethan’s confidence.
Once she’d unlocked the play, though, guess which character was easier to write?
“Ethan was there in the first draft; I got him,” says Eason. “With Olivia, I was like—I don’t know who that is. I have a much harder time writing women characters, almost always. I have to keep digging and digging to get specific with them. The men arrive sort of fully formed: their voice and who they are, their flaws and what they want, and what they’re not getting. I don’t know why.”
Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey gingerly offers a theory: “A psychotherapist might say that because Olivia is closer to Laura, it was harder to write, because it touches on something she doesn’t want to admit to herself: the ferocity of her own ambitions. I think women don’t find that easy to acknowledge.”
But Stephen Louis Grush, who plays Ethan, sees aspects of Laura in both characters.
“It reminds me a little bit of True West, where Sam Shepard seems to have split himself into two different people,” says Grush. “You’ve got the wild man and the more businesslike writer, and the two of them put on stage creates a perfect storm.” Still, it makes sense to him that Ethan’s side of the ledger added up more quickly: “Olivia is much more damaged, much more vulnerable, and putting that bruised ego out on stage—it’s not strange that it would be harder to get there.”
It was worth making the difficult journey, because Olivia’s anxieties bring us to the heart of what makes Eason an essential voice. When, late in Sex with Strangers, it becomes clear that Olivia is still troubled by Ethan’s colorful sexual history, despite his being entirely upfront about it from their first meeting, he challenges her: “How have I been to you? Not to those girls. To you?” She admits: “Amazing.” Ethan’s haunting plea: “So, can we focus on what’s in the room?”
What’s in the room: This has been Eason’s passion since she caught the story-theatre bug at the Piven Theatre Workshop as a child. But the question of whether we can, indeed, put aside our distractions and our neuroses and really deal with what’s in front of us—both in our intimate relationships and our larger social roles—makes the conflict at the heart of Sex with Strangers resonate out to the larger world, and ripple beyond our current moment. And it’s a question that inevitably bounces back to the theatre, the one space that still gives us unmediated contact with storytelling, despite the cell phones that barely slumber in our pockets and purses.
That live presence clearly fires Eason’s work, both original and adapted. Indeed, it’s a big part of what draws her to the story of the other, older Ethan. As in Wharton’s novel, his bleak story unfolds secondhand, through Henry Morton (a name Eason invented for Wharton’s unnamed narrator), a visitor to barren Starkfield, Mass., who meets the broken-down Frome long after the shattering events that Morton pieces together in a long flashback.
“It’s very important that the story is told through Morton’s eyes,” says Eason. “Instead of turning away from this person in pain, Henry takes the little details he knows and constructs this incredibly sympathetic and devastating narrative. For me, it’s about how we can choose to fill in the blanks about other people in an empathetic way. And that’s something that theatre still does, in a time when people are not having as much human contact, and even the way we consume stories feels less human. The whole show ends up being an exercise in empathy.”
If plays are indeed exercises in empathy, Eason is well toned. It’s Acting 101 that a character should enter the stage with a rich offstage backstory that predates the scene; even if we never learn all or any of its details, we should feel it. Laura Eason makes her playwriting entrance with a similar sense of being fully formed, and even if we can’t begin to guess at all the ingredients folded into this multidisciplinary theatre artist, we can feel them.