Playwright Tina Howe (Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances, The Art of Dining) died on Aug. 28. She was 85. To read another tribute to her, go here.
Tina Howe was an exuberant chronicler of extraordinary women. And she was one of the only women at that time who was putting those extravagant but true characters on stage.
In the first show we did together, Painting Churches, I questioned whether Fanny and Gardner weren’t just a bit over the top. Tina sat me down in her living room and told me story after story about her Very New England parents. By the end, through laughter and amazement, I was thoroughly convinced; the characters on the page seemed mild in comparison. I never questioned her again.
To know Tina was to love her fabulousness—that’s probably not a real word, but it describes Tina. “Let’s have a tea party,” she would announce to me and my children. She would bring out the fancy family teacups and, in a posh accent, ask if anyone would like “a spot of tea, one lump or two?”
Her play Coastal Disturbances starts with a young man, a young woman, and a lifeguard stand. We had the beautiful young woman, Annette Bening, and the lifeguard, Tim Daly, but the first scene between them just wasn’t working during the early previews. Tina and I sat in the green room and I finally said, “You know, you’re the writer. It’s all in your head; if you don’t like the way the play is starting, rewrite it.” Maybe that sounds a little obvious now, but it was like a thunderbolt. “You’re right—I can,” she replied. And she went home, wrote a new scene full of humor and longing that set the tone for that beautiful play. Here’s the postcard, one of many that she sent me to set the scene.
Coastal went on to receive Tony nominations for Best Play, Best Director, and Best Actress—only the second time that trifecta of women was thus nominated.
Tina wrote about children with zest: Winston, Miranda, Fletcher, Turner, and Pony, all based on her love for Dara and Eben. And writing about food—her play The Art of Dining is full of it, obviously, but only Tina could think of “Swiss chard shuddering” and “spinach seething,” in the play One Shoe Off. (Still, she discreetly refused to divulge the recipe for her meezy speezy chicken.)
Her descriptions of sets—“I imagined the set made of fabric,” or, “Grass, weeds, and tangled shrubbery are encroaching indoors”—gave shivers of excitement to set designer Heidi Landesman.
Tina had a desk full of rubber stamps which she used on every communication with me, along with pinked edges and stars or sequins. Here are a few.
Tina had a true fascination with the absurdities of life, and it was a joy to direct and produce four of her plays and share in the unique worlds she created onstage and off-.
Carole Rothman is president and artistic director at Second Stage, and she was the director of Howe’s Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances, Approaching Zanzibar, and One Shoe Off.
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