The year: 1970. The place: Galveston, Texas. In a rambling home, a family is reunited on the day of its patriarch's funeral. As the day dwindles on, dark secrets and family truths are revealed. This is Unbroken Circle, a real-life-inspired, dark, dark comedy by actor/playwright James Wesley. After a fifteen-performance showcase run as part of Seth Rudetsky's Midtown March Medley, the work has moved to St. Luke's Theatre for a summer Off-Broadway run. We sat down with Wesley (who happens to be Rudetsky's husband) and actress Eve Plumb (best known for her television role as Jan Brady) to discuss the development of this twisty play, one that actually finds audience members gasping with surprise.
James, where did this play come from? It seems a bit personal.
James Wesley: I got the idea from this picture from 1912 of my mom's grandmother — my great-grandmother. It's her and her family…one of those old, antique pictures and no one looks happy. [To Eve] Was it you? One of the women in the cast said [all photos] were like that.
Eve Plumb: In the early days of picture-taking, the exposure shutter had to stay open for a long time, so you had to stay really still. And I don't think smiling in pictures was a thing yet.
JW: Oh, it wasn't?
EP: I don't think so. I don't know why. I would love to research that, when people started smiling in pictures …but even in the early days if you were having your picture taken, they would have a brace at the back of your head, so you had to stay really still. Otherwise it would come out blurry. The shutter had to stay open that long to let all the light in. If you moved, it would blur.
JW: Of course as a kid I didn't know that. We all smiled in pictures. Right away I thought it was odd. And then, when I was fifteen, I learned that the man in the photograph, her stepfather, had been abusing her and actually raping her. My grandfather was the result of that, as well as a younger brother and an older brother. When I decided to start writing about this woman I had never met, I decided to imagine her life and what it was like. To go from there, it was all fictional. Everyone who has a name in the play is from real life.
Eve, what attracted you to the piece?
EP: It started out with the play readings, as these things often do. It was a work in progress and got better and better, and it kept moving forward, and now we're Off-Broadway. I really realized it's a good role to get to originate and help develop.
Being with it for so long, did you have any input in the direction of the character?
EP: We've all had a lot of input. James is very good at listening. I think it's helped to shape the play into what it is. We would all tell our stories and give our opinions, so I was able to, which was very nice of him.
JW: Especially Eve. We figured out you've been with me the longest, so even after the first reading that was really informal, I heard Eve's voice and so when I would write it and go back and change things, I couldn't get her voice out of my head. That obviously informed the rest of the character's journey. Everyone was very respectful and had strong opinions about their characters, which — it made me happy, because that meant they were passionate about what they were doing, and they wanted their character to be seen.
EP: It takes many eyes to see the little flaws or inconsistencies, so that he was open to hearing that helped it a lot.
Is Aunt June based on anyone you know specifically?
EP: Not specifically. The accent is a mix of my mother, who was from Oklahoma but who didn't have much of an accent, and Carol Burnett, and Fannie Flagg. JW: I didn't know that! I love Fannie Flagg.
As a playwright, what did the readings add to the process?
JW: Oftentimes just hearing it out loud was enough to be like "Okay, now I know what I need to do." We would get back together a couple of months later and do it again. I think we had a formal 29-hour reading and that was the only time we had an audience, but they were friends. And the showcase, of course, gave feedback, and while we were doing it, we did fifteen shows and changed a lot. Everyone was so open to making the changes and really making it a workshop, which it needed to be. We weren't reviewed. We thought about it, but I'm glad we weren't.
EP: Me too. That venue was very small. So small that the audience was right on top of you and I think they felt, not oppressed, but that they couldn't respond as much. So now that there's the proscenium and the separation, and they're in the dark, they laugh louder, there are more of them, and they feel comfortable. They can react.
JW: I'm glad we did it and that it's behind us. Not to mention the fact that our dressing room, and by dressing room, I meant backstage…
EP: There was no outside. You just had to…It was like silent running. It was like being in a submarine. He had to make a fast cross and I would just stand up against the wall. [Laughs]
And naturally cell phones would go off.
JW: Oh, worse than that. You would hear sopranos warming up upstairs in the theater next door. The last week they were doing howling exercises.
EW: I did Love, Loss, and What I Wore at the Westside, and upstairs was Voca People, so we would time the starts of our shows, and still, at the very end of the play, where it gets very dramatic with very upsetting stories, you would hear thump thump thump thump — you'd hear them thumping and stomping.
Let's talk about the audience's reaction when the revelations start happening. I've never heard gasps like that before. Is it always like that?
EP: It's surprising.
JW: It's always different. Sometimes you only hear a few; other times you hear a lot.
EP: Sometimes people say things. Telling each other information.
JW: We had one show where they actually laughed. It was nervous laughter.
EP: They all gasped and everyone went heh heh heh heh. And then there's another dramatic moment, so Suzanna had to pull 'em back and she did.
JW: As writer it's really satisfying. On stage, it's Suzanna's moment. It's fun to be up there. When I was writing it I said, "This is gonna get a gasp." And then to see Suzanna so wonderfully deliver it, it's really thrilling. And I don't have to say anything; I can just be up there.
What do you want the audience to take away from this experience?
JW: I can sum it up in one word: hope. In the reading we did, the one that I was telling you about, there was an actor in the audience who said "I felt devastated," at the end of the play, "I want to feel hope." I felt he was completely correct. I don't know who said…Is there a Nicole Kidman movie out, is it Rabbit Hole, maybe, where you just feel completely devastated at the end and you feel no hope? Someone said, "In your play, I didn't feel devastated, I feel hopeful." So, hope.
Eve, what about you?
EP: I don't ever think about that, it's funny. I just do what I do and people's reactions are what they are. I don't have a lot of control over that. You have to be, as an actor, you have that fourth wall that they talk about, where we're living in an enclosed world and these people don't exist, you have to respond to them and work with them, because otherwise you'll step on laughs, you'll miss a beat, so it's a whole tennis game back and forth with portraying these moments in supposed real time and listening with an ear to the pace.