In March, I ran into director Daniel Sullivan at our local diner on the Upper West Side. “Am I seeing you in Kansas?” I asked. No, said Dan; he had a conflict. But I must give him a report when I get back.
“Kansas” was shorthand for the festival that this year would honor a mutual friend, playwright Donald Margulies. Each year the William Inge Theatre Festival and Conference, held in Inge’s hometown of Independence, recognizes a different playwright: Past honorees have included Edward Albee, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, Wendy Wasserstein, Marsha Norman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This year, the festival was held April 17-19 at Independence Community College.
Independence has no Amtrak station. No regular bus service connects it to the outside world. The airport you use to get there is in Tulsa, which is in another state. If you want to get to Independence, you have to muster determination. And yet, every year for the past 34 years, a substantial number of actors, writers and directors—largely from New York and Los Angeles—gather there to celebrate that season’s honoree.
Truth to tell, Independence is a place that Inge—a gay man seeking a life in the arts—fled at the earliest opportunity. Still, he brought Independence’s influence with him to Broadway in such long-running plays as Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba.
It’s also where a film based on one of his screenplays was shot. There’s a story about that: A house owned by a lady in the town struck the producers as a likely location, and some of the filmmakers visited it to talk to her about it. Later, someone asked the lady about the visit. “Oh,” she said, “that funny little Billy Inge. He came by with some Chinaman and some Jew.” These were legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Eliza Kazan—who was Greek, not Jewish, though the confusion was hardly uncommon. (Boris Kaufman ended up shooting the film instead of Howe.) The film was Splendor in the Grass.
Margulies, who hails from Brooklyn and whose work owes little discernible debt to Inge, was done proud by this year’s Inge Festival. One evening was devoted to a reading of his most recent play, The Country House. The story concerns a middle-aged actor whose family make room for him because of the biological connection but otherwise treat him with ill-concealed condescension because he doesn’t have the talent they do. When it played Broadway, some of the critics, paying overmuch attention to the influence of Chekhov, gave it a sniffy reception. It deserves better. (It won the Ovation Award in Los Angeles as the season’s best new play based on its run at the Geffen Playhouse.)
Todd Cerveris, who had only a handful of days to rehearse and was reading pages on a music stand, gave a detailed and nuanced performance as the actor son, and Kandis Chappell matched him as his mother, a leading lady who can’t manage to act well enough to persuade her son he is loved. It is discouraging that theatres outside of New York let the New York Times do their thinking for them and haven’t scheduled productions of this, one of Margulies’s most intricate and moving plays.
Another regular feature of the festival is the celebration of a younger writer designated the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award winner. This year, the winner was Jen Silverman, who got a reading of her play The Moors, a cheerfully bizarre work about two eccentric sisters, a governess, a schizoid maid and a philosophical dog all going bonkers due to the isolation of the terrain in which they live. It put me in mind of the 19th century settlers who were often driven by similar isolation on the plains of Kansas to psychotic breaks, murder and suicide.
For their part, the gregarious, generous Kansans around us during the Saturday night banquet at the Booth Hotel didn’t seem likely to go bonkers. There were salutes to the small army of volunteers who each year work hundreds of hours to bring a taste of professional theatre to Independence. (The town doesn’t have a big enough audience to support an ongoing professional company.) After the festivities, I found myself chatting with a girl who talked about being introduced to Inge’s plays in high school. I remarked about what might be gleaned from his plays about how life was lived during and after the Depression in places like Independence, and about how his portraits of women, Jews and closeted gays struggling in such towns offers a reminder of how profoundly America’s social attitudes have changed in the intervening years. “I don’t know,” the girl said. “Independence is still a pretty conservative place.”
Sunday night brought the big event, a multimedia Margulies celebration adroitly organized by festival director Karen Carpenter. Featured were a series of smartly edited video clips of Donald’s friends and collaborators, including longtime playwriting pal Jane Anderson, actor Laura Linney (whose career was launched with a supporting part in Sight Unseen Off-Broadway) and his frequent producer, Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow. Between these were substantial excerpts from several of his plays, directed by Carpenter and Jen Markowitz, including What’s Wrong with this Picture?, The Loman Family Picnic, Sight Unseen, and Brooklyn Boy.
A highlight was Kandis Chappell as Ruth Steiner, the betrayed author in Collected Stories. It’s a part that Maria Tucci, Uta Hagen and Linda Lavin all played with distinction in New York, but Chappell originated the role at South Coast Rep, and Donald has always spoken of her with special enthusiasm. It was easy to see why. This reminded me once again that, as lucky as those of us who live in New York are to see a great range of performers, there are world-class actors like California-based Chappell to whom we have yet to be introduced.
At the end of evening came a bonus: Out walked Daniel Sullivan to speak of the satisfactions of his long collaboration with Donald. At the party after, I said to him, “You lied to me in the diner.” “Yes, I did,” he said. It didn’t seem to bother him.