New York City was a sophisticated, witty place in the early 1980s. At least that’s how it seemed to me. It was also loud and harsh, inducing a perpetual state of sensory overload. My apartment was in the heart of the city on 47th Street behind the historic Palace Theater—one stage door away from Times Square.
Trips home to Louisiana were rare, and I missed my quirky Southern family. When Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart opened on Broadway, it was a few streets and a cultural abyss away. I’m sorry to say it took me a while to cross the 5-block chasm.
At the time Off-Off-Broadway kept me busy designing lighting for an eclectic collection of productions: John Sayles’ Turnbuckle starring David Straitharn and New Hope for the Dead in Riverside Park, and downtown at Rip Torn’s Sanctuary Theater for Village Wooing, Taylor Meade’s iconic anti-war classic Spider Rabbit, and Murray Schisgal’s pair of one-acts Walter and The Flatulist. Murray wrote Tootsie for Dustin Hoffman. Walter was based on a true story about a deceased friend of theirs, and Dustin Hoffman made a memorable appearance for one rehearsal as “guest director.”
Too many theater people share a dilemma. If they’re working on a play, they don’t have time to see other shows. If they’re not working, they can’t afford to see anything. Living a half-block from the discount ticket booth TKTS was my salvation. Crimes was a hot ticket, and I was lucky to get a balcony seat.
Loved the show! It was like a visit home. We didn’t have quite as much mayhem around our house, but we were three sisters with very different personalities—like the main characters. I had to call my mother and tell her how much Crimes of the Heart felt like home. That’s when she said that playwright Beth Henley’s family lived near my grandmother in Brookhaven, Mississippi and that we played together as little girls.
It was impossible to ignore the parallel with another Pulitzer Prize winner and her playmate. Harper Lee won in 1961 for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird about a small Southern town in Alabama. Her childhood friend Truman Capote was widely believed to be the inspiration for Dill. I had no illusion about filling Truman Capote’s role—but we both had very talented playmates.
Thirty-five years later, my editor at Pelican Publishing coaxed me into attending the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. At first I was reluctant, not quite ready to emerge from my year of writing in quiet and solitary hibernation. Then the Festival announced that Beth Henley would be there.
A highlight of the Festival is a spoken word evening with celebrities reading passages of Williams’ poetic language which is found throughout his works. Dick Cavett, Estelle Parsons, and Mary Badham who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird joined Beth Henley on the program at Jaxson, a beautiful new event venue in the old Jackson Brewery building (re-purposed landmark).
A charming group of ladies held the elevator for me, exchanging greetings in a cultured Southern drawl. A couple of men joined them a few minutes later. Then, they were in a group hug, surrounding and embracing a petite, long-haired, smiling woman who turned out to be Beth Henley. It was a picture perfect a family reunion.
Beth has a quick laugh and smiling eyes. Her Aunt Barbara remembered my grandmother Ida and her house on the corner of East Court Street. Beth and her cousins remembered summers in Brookhaven, especially the food. Their family favorite was caramel cake—ours was bread pudding.
We didn’t remember each other as kids. It didn’t matter. It was nice to meet the Pulitzer Prize winner from down the block.