Rewriting the happy ending: World premiere of 'Romance Novels for Dummies'
WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — Playwright Boo Killebrew wants to make something clear from the outset. Her new play, "Romance Novels for Dummies," is NOT autobiographical.
Yes, like her 29-year-old heroine, Liz Eberwine, Killebrew comes from Mississippi — Gulfport, to be exact. Yes, she left Mississippi to make a new life for herself in New York as an actress and as a writer. Liz also wants to write. But that's where it all ends. For one thing, Killebrew writes plays; Liz wants to write romance novels. More than that, Killebrew says she feels more in tune temperamentally with Liz's 32-year-old sister, Bernie, who lives something of a carefree bohemian lifestyle.
Liz (played by Mary Wiseman in the world premiere of "Romance Novels for Dummies" at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage through July 31) is in a period of transition. She lost her husband, her high school sweetheart, in a terrible automobile accident six months earlier and is trying to refashion her life while she is living with grief.
"I am from Mississippi and a lot of my girlfriends got married very young and had kids. That's what you did," Killebrew said during a break in rehearsals.
"I wanted my story to look different. I wanted to see if I could customize that story, change it mid-stream."
She has a friend who suffered the terrible loss of her husband and another friend who, during a casual conversation with Killebrew, blurted out suddenly, "I want to write romance novels."
Killebrew took those strands and wove them into an affectionate comedy that explores issues of loss, parenting, death, dating, starting over (as the intermissionless play begins, Bernie is helping Liz fill out an OkCupid Profile), choices, happy endings and what that means.
"I think a happy ending can look a lot different than we're accustomed to," Killebrew said.
Killebrew, whose plays have been produced in Boston at Huntington Theatre Company and Boston Playwright's Theatre and in New York at Roundabout Theatre, The Public Theatre, 59E59 Theatres, among others, says she tends to write about women in the South.
"My writing is usually pretty serious," she said. "This is probably the most straight-up comedy I've written."
Her creative collaborator is director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who earned a 2016 Tony Award nomination for Best Director of a Play for his work on "Hand of God." He also has worked extensively Off-Broadway, at variety of regional theaters and in Williamstown and Boston, where he met Killebrew when they were students at Boston University.
"She was an actor then," von Stuelpnagel said, joining Killebrew for the interview. "But I directed a 10-minute play of hers at BU in 2001."
The fact that they know each other well makes for a kind of shorthand during rehearsals.
"I'm happy that we don't need to be polite with each other," von Stuelpnagel said.
He was drawn to "Romance Novels " not only because of his friendship with and respect for Killebrew but also because "I'm attracted to plays about people with wit, strength and presence; presence in the challenge of tough circumstances."
The tough circumstance for Liz is dealing with grief and raising a precocious, soon-to-be-7-year-old daughter who, in the aftermath of her father's death, has become obsessed with death, as if it were some beguiling fantasy.
"Living with grief you have to go a long way to learn whether the coping mechanisms you have are strong enough," von Stuelpnagel said.
Killebrew is no stranger to Williamstown. She had a writing residency at the festival two years ago. A year ago, she had a reading of an early version of "Romance Novels " with some of WTF's young non-Equity actors.
"It was 9 a.m. on a Friday at The Log (a Spring Street hangout for Williams students, staff and faculty and the public). The place was packed," Killebrew said. "It went very well."
WTF's associate director, Laura Savia, was at the reading, liked what she saw and encouraged Killebrew to develop it.
"That's one of the things I like about Williamstown," Killebrew said. "You can just come with (new material) without necessarily thinking it will develop into something.
"You can do workshops and readings but you really don't learn about a play until it's up and running and in front of an audience.
"(WTF artistic director) Mandy Greenfield, is taking a big risk with this — a new comedy about two women, real younger women getting ready to stretch their muscles, written by a woman."
IF YOU GO ...
What: "Romance Novels for Dummies" by Boo Killebrew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown, Mass.
When: July 20-31 (press opening, Saturday). Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8; July 24 at 7. Matinees — Saturday at 3:30; Sunday and July 28 at 2
How: 413-597-3400; wtfestival.org; in person at '62 Center box office