More on THE RELIGION THING; and an interview with the playwright

This blog entry comes to us from Frank Disalvo, a Theater J Literary Intern and MFA Playwriting Candidate at Catholic University. Frank served as dramaturg on Theater J’s production of THE RELIGION THING.

The first duty of a dramaturg working on a new play is to explain to everyone else what a dramaturg does (ha, ha, yeah, ahem–that’s a little dramaturgy humor there). The second duty is for the dramaturg to keep his eyes on the text, working with the playwright to help develop the piece, and with the actors to help them better understand the world of the play (through research, images, and conversation.)

I sat down with the playwright to talk about her new play, and how Theater J has worked with her over the past year and a half to develop it. I also took it as an opportunity to just talk about the play itself, as dramaturgs are wont to do.

The cast of THE RELIGION THING. Photo by Colin Hovde.

The Play (or, “Why You Have No Excuse Not To See This”)

THE RELIGION THING deals with weighty topics including, but not limited to, religion (as you may have inferred from the title) and politics. As you watch the show, though, you will discover that our playwright never takes an opportunity to comment on her characters, or to inject her opinion into the play. Calarco, an award-winning D.C. playwright, says “I don’t have an agenda with this play. I didn’t want to reveal what my religion is, or what my political opinions are.” In the end, this makes THE RELIGION THING a much more complex and thought-provoking play, leaving the audience with a lot to sort out for themselves.

THE RELIGION THING is a case study on personal identity rather than any kind of argument for or against religious belief. Calarco shows how religion and faith not only affect the relationship between a person and his or her God, but also between a person and their own sense of self. Throughout the play we see conflicts that are created because characters’ religious beliefs–or lack thereof–clash with their past, or their future.

Okay, you caught me–if it sounds like I am being laughably vague, it’s because I am–THE RELIGION THING is not only a thematically deep play that will no doubt spark lengthy discussions (I suggest you and your fellow play-goers plan to spend a few hours at coffee shop or bar after the show), but it is also equal parts character-driven and plot-driven, with plenty of twists and surprises.

Mo and Brian are our main protagonists of the play. A successful D.C. couple, she’s a quick-thinking lawyer with a sharp tongue and he’s a laid-back lobbyist who is a little lost in life. When Mo’s friend Patti mentions that she and her husband Jeff are thinking of having a baby, it sets something off in Mo and the arguing begins.

“I’m tired of waiting for you, Brian,” Mo says mid-way through the first act, when the two are alone. “I am not waiting until I’m 40 [to have kids].”

“So the religion thing is what?” replies Brian. (Hey, that’s the title of the play!)

“The religion thing” is a point of contention that Mo and Brian have been avoiding confronting for their entire four years of marriage. You see, Mo is Roman Catholic (“lapsed Catholic,” points out Brian) and Brian is Jewish (“You haven’t set foot in a synagogue since I’ve known you,” Mo shoots back at him).

Neither of them is particularly religious. And yet, neither is willing to budge when it comes to “the religion thing.”

“Our children are not being raised Catholic,” Brian says sternly.

“What, you want them to be raised Jewish?” asks Mo, though the disbelief in her voice shows it’s not really a question.

This is where THE RELIGION THING is at its most engaging and thought-provoking. Faith isn’t so important to Mo and Brian–what their kids “believe,” matters of heaven and hell, and spirituality aren’t the point. The real issue here is identity. While Brian hasn’t been to a Kol Nidre service in eight years and Mo only goes to Mass on Christmas Eve, they both still identify strongly with the religion with which they were raised; neither would consider converting.

What makes this situation so difficult for us as the audience is that we can see that Mo and Brian are perfect for each other in every other way. They way they can riff off of each other and trade lighthearted insults can only be described as endearing. But Calarco gives us no easy outs – and she refuses to show us her judgments of the characters in the play.

“What do you hope happens to Mo and Brian after the end of the play?” I ask her eagerly, hoping she’ll give me some solace after the uncertainty of the play’s final scene.

“I think they’re doing what they should be doing at that moment in time,” she responds with a slight smile. Well, I suppose I can read whatever I want into that. Thanks, Renee.

Jeff and Patti, the other couple in THE RELIGION THING, have similar problems, but from a totally different perspective: both are born-again Christians who make faith central to their lives. As Patti reveals in the first scene, they are planning to begin a family soon. But both are dealing with issues from their past which threaten to disrupt not only their marriage, but their beliefs about who they are. Both of them cling to their faith, but both of their pasts come into conflict with their present lives. These issues of faith even threaten to end Mo and Patti’s nearly two-decade friendship.

Calarco presents religion and faith at an individual level, exploring how each person finds faith, or uses it to define themselves. Another playwright might slip in hints as to what their opinion is, or resolve things neatly so that we can see who is “right” and who is “wrong” at the end. But Calarco does none of that. Instead we get a story that is much more natural, more human, and more moving.

Liz Mamana and Chris Stezin (Photo by Colin Hovde)

Origins (or, “Theater J Questions Title, Gives Playwright Key to Play)

THE RELIGION THING has a long and storied past. Okay, maybe not that storied, but it’s been in development since 2004, when it was in a completely different form. At that time, the play, then called Good Counsel, was only ten minutes long “and was not quite a play, but not a sketch.” After being heard at the Source Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Play Competition and at Page-To-Stage at the Kennedy Center in 2004, the playwright began to think of expanding the piece. “The characters were telling me they wanted to be in a bigger play,” she says. “I felt like they had more to say.”

The idea for Good Counsel came from a newspaper article Calarco read in the Post about a married couple that did peer-to-peer marriage counseling. “There was nothing particularly unusual about this couple, but it got me thinking, ‘What about this couple makes them experts in counseling other people?’ And then I made a leap from that to, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if they were completely unsuitable?’” Yes, it would be – and is – quite funny, often in an uncomfortable way. Calarco describes the play as having characters who, despite being caught in terrible situations, “are funny in a way where they can’t help themselves.” The results, as evidenced by the audiences that have seen the show at Theater J so far, are several moments in the play where we can’t help but laugh at how badly the characters are screwing up their lives.

The play has seen many iterations over the past seven and a half years, and has received readings at the Charter Theatre’s First Draft Reading Series (with current cast member Chris Stezin reading Brian) and the Geva Theatre Center’s Regional Playwrights Festival. Theater J got a hold of the script in July 2010, and many overhauls have happened since. “I wouldn’t even call them ‘revisions,’ they were more like different versions,” says Calarco. “At one point I had two completely different Act Twos.”

One of the first things that got changed once Theater J began to develop the piece was the title – Good Counsel. “They [Theater J] rightly said ‘What’s with this title?’ ‘What’s this play about?’ They didn’t say it was a horrible title, but it really was.” In fact, Good Counsel is indicative of the previous structure of the piece, which was centralized around a court case that Mo was arguing throughout the play. “It was just so pretentious and so awful,” recalls the playwright with a laugh. “One of the first things I reexamined was the title. I thought, ‘What is this play about?’” Soon, she realized that the theme of religion and religious identity was prevalent, and picked up on Brian’s line about ‘the religion thing.’ She had found her new title. “That moment was when I realized that the play was not ‘X,’ it was ‘Y.’ I would not have come to that realization without Theater J guiding it through the process.”

In July 2010 Theater J held a reading of THE RELIGION THING as part of its Tea at Two reading series, with current cast members Liz Mamana and Chris Stezin as Mo and Brian. Since then, Theater J has worked closely with Calarco to develop the play.

“Knowing that I was meeting with people who had read the play and thought about it in a deep way was kind of intimidating,” recalls Calarco. “Because I’m so close to [the play], and because I’ve been so close to these characters . . . for so many years, I haven’t had to think very deeply about them – they just were in this little space. So knowing that there were other people who hadn’t known them as long as I had gave me the impetus to focus my attention more on it.”

Theater J brought The Religion Thing to the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival this past September, featuring the five actors in the current production. “Since Page-to-Stage, I don’t imagine anyone else’s face whenever I write those roles—it’s always Will, it’s always Kim, it’s always Joe,” remarks Calarco. “It’s an astonishing cast – it’s amazing. They’re fearless and they’re funny and wonderful people. It could not be any better – it’s fantastic.” I’ll agree with her: it’s hard to imagine any one else playing these roles. Liz Mamana, Chris Stezin, Kimberly Gilbert, Will Gartshore, and Joe Thornhill all deliver excellent performances that capture the conflicted and complex natures of each of the characters.

One of the most interesting things about this production is that it is being directed by Renee Calarco’s brother, award-winning director Joe Calarco. Having sat in on rehearsals and witnessed first-hand the two working together, I can say that it’s a perfect working relationship for this play. Joe Calarco, a playwright himself, can approach the play from a writer’s standpoint, asking Renee the right questions not only about the world of the play and the characters, but also about the mechanics and structure of the piece. I ask Renee if there were ever any conflicts that came about from working with her brother. “No,” she replies, “I know that’s a boring answer, but Joe and I work great together.” Boring or no—this harmony is clearly beneficial for the play.

Concluding Thoughts (or, “Why Haven’t You Reserved a Ticket Yet?”)

You might think that I have a biased opinion, and you may be right. But as the dramaturg, I try to be as objective as possible and be an advocate for you, the audience. THE RELIGION THING is an exciting new play from a vibrant voice in D.C. Theater, and Theater J is proud to be producing it. It is one of the most provocative and intelligent new plays that this dramaturg has ever come across, and is sure to leave you talking for hours after the curtain call.

Like I said, make plans for the inevitable post-show conversations.