A widower who has retreated from life. An innocent who performs good works of dubious usefulness. An eternal traveler sampling philosophies to feed her spiritual hunger. Fraught family dynamics enliven The Hummingbird's Tour, a decidedly Southern comedy in which three very different siblings confront their own mortality -- and that of their beloved childhood nanny -- upon the arrival of a stranger who may be an otherworldly messenger from the beyond.
Playwright Margaret Dulaney and director John Augustine came into Manhattan from Pennsylvania -- where Dulaney lives with her husband of more than 30 years, musician Matt Balitsaris, and Augustine lives with his partner of nearly as long, playwright Christopher Durang -- to talk life, death and comedy.
How did Tour come about?
Margaret Dulaney: I wrote this play 20 years ago, in my 30s. Then I moved to the country, and I thought, "I never was able to find a director; I'm never going to find one in Bucks County, so I'm quitting theater. I'm going to start writing something absolutely different." You can put something down for 20 years and then when you pick it back up you think, "I shouldn't have picked this up until this second."
You both live in Bucks County. Is that how you met?
John Augustine: We met Margaret volunteering at the voter booth. She's very political, but in a nonconfrontational way. Then a friend told me she was a writer, and talented, and so I learned of her in the neighborhood and eventually met at, probably, a cocktail party.
MD: It was a decade before I thought, "We should do a play together." I had a seen a play that somehow opened the little theater door in my heart. A friend of ours has a private barn which she turned into a performance space -- she got lights and sound that were being tossed out from Lincoln Center. So we decided to do this lab production and get old friends of mine involved, our old connections from the theater, and they were all still in theater and willing to come from New York and L.A.
JA: The barn wasn't as finished as it might sound. It's really an empty dairy barn; this cool guy that used to do rock concerts when he was young -- he's, like, 70 now -- he's the one that had put in the lights. It's, like, a barn... meaning very rustic, beautiful, very hip. And we really did turn it into a theater. I don't think we bought any furniture; we were like, "Just bring the crap from our house and throw it on stage."
I heard a rumor the set now is from your houses.
JA: Chris, when he saw the show he said, "Is that our rug?" I was like, "You wish that was our rug. Honey, our rug costs about $50. This rug was [Margaret's] mom's. I have a feeling it's about $5,000." But the tables are from our house, the lamp is from our house, the chair's from my massage office...
Besides furniture, what else was lifted from real life?
MD: Mainly I was hearing my grandmother's voice. My grandmother was a very interesting character. She had a near-death experience in her 30s -- she clinically died in childbirth and had a real near-death experience and came back, and she from that moment on was on this philosophical search to understand where she had been. She embraced all these different philosophies and religions and finally landed on Rudolf Steiner. She had a kind of regal, interesting, almost English way of speaking, even though she was Southern, that had no trace of a Southern accent.
Would she talk about her experience?
MD: She so indoctrinated the grandchildren in her way of thinking that I never had a moment's fear of death. She said she couldn't wait to get back -- it was like a trip to Europe, you know. She'd give you a ring off her finger and she would say, "Preparing to translate." We're all quite comfortable with the subject of death, very, and there's a lot of comedy in my family around death. One of our cousins had these two ailing parents and she had their lovely little wooden boxes made before they died! My mother thought it was just totally charming of this cousin that she bought her parents' coffins, had them made before they died, and used it as sweater storage!
JA: I didn't know that detail. That would be fun in a play.
MD: Her generation was just more comfortable around the subject of death. I feel we have gotten less comfortable.
Why do you suppose that is?
JA: Back in Kentucky and Ohio [where Dulaney and Augustine, respectively, grew up], people died and they were laid out in their living room and people were at home. Maybe there was a comfort around that. Your grandmother lived with you, and when she died you laid her out in the parlor. Now we have people die hooked up to machines in hospitals. It looks more upsetting to us.
MD: I'm a real connoisseur of near-death experience. And there are so many more because unfortunately they've gotten so good at -- some people are dead an hour, poor things, and are brought back. It's awful that they're pulling people back from death. My friends all say, "If you want anybody to sign a living will, get Margaret."
JA: "Don't tell Margaret you're sick; she'll try to send you over." I'm the youngest of eight children, so I responded to [Tour's] family dynamic, siblings coming together and coming home. This arguing in Margaret's play I was attracted to -- it always cracked me up, 60-year-olds acting like teenagers and shouting at each other the way you do when you go home to family. You become your 12-year-old self.
MD: When you're in your twenties, you assume you're going to mature.
The role the African-American nanny plays is a challenging dynamic to our contemporary eye. Did you have any concerns about how that might be viewed?
MD: I did. I wanted this woman absolutely respected.
JA: She wrote a woman who cared about reading because her mother didn't read, and it means something to her character to know proper English, what she considers proper English. But it is an interesting challenge in our contemporary understanding.
There's no question such relationships existed and were meaningful. You don't want to leave it out because it might discomfit some people -- or deprive actors of color of roles. I did feel unsettled to be watching a character who fit the noble "Magical Negro" type, who takes care of and teaches lessons to white people.
JA: It's part of the dignity of those people who lived that life. And one must give respect to that time period and not pretend it didn't happen. That is a sacrifice, if you want to think of it that way, that the person of color made, to give themselves into a family, in a sense -- sometimes against their own family. I think that is something to look at and remember.
MD: If the character were white, would you feel uncomfortable?
I don't think so.
JA: In the Equity [listing] for understudies I put "Latina, Asian, African-American" -- not white because we had white people on stage and I just didn't want another white person. But because of the regionalism of Kentucky, Margaret really wanted it to be African-American.
MD: She was based on a woman I knew, in my own home, who commanded absolute respect from everyone who entered that house. She was hearing her family's voices four months before she died. I don't think as yet I've offended anyone. This man came the other day, an African-American man, and he said that his aunt just died at 105 and the family she had nannied all showed up and he finally got to meet them. And they were all in their 60s. He said it was just bizarre. They were very distraught at the loss of her.
It's a part of our history that of necessity makes people uncomfortable because of the continued inequities in our culture.
JA: It is an interesting question, the topic of what we represent in our work, what's important to remember or not remember or change.
MD: I have always written comedy about serious subjects. You have to balance that so delicately.
Tone is so --
JA: Tricky. And it changes night to night with the audience, depending on how they feel. Paula Vogel wrote something -- someone asked her how she writes a play and she's like, "I don't write the play, the audience writes the play." If the audience comes and brings an energy, they are in a sense writing their experience, because they're bringing it out of the actors.
Working in theater takes bravery, facing that audience every night. What do you like best about directing?
JA: I have a lot of personalities, it seems. So as a director I get to use everything I do, my musical ability, my comic, my drama, my writing, my acting. It's fun for me to get to use all the parts of my personality...and not have to take medication for it.
It's its own medication. The ecstasy of creating. Do you ever experience agony while writing?
MD: If I didn't write I'd be in more agony. It's like visiting an old friend that I really love to visit. Since I've been working on this play I haven't been able to write, and I have really missed that old friend.
JA: I usually write little plays when I'm my most upset or angry or sad, but they come out funny. Usually my writing is an outlet of really being pissed off politically or emotionally or at some perceived injustice, [but] I can't say it to the person or to the world, so I figure I can have a character say this. I make it a woman or a different age person so it frees it for real expression. [I wrote a] tiny short play called Nicole and Jane about this narcissistic woman that verbalizes nonstop and her friend who she's not listening to who's grieving. And all my women friends, everybody thinks that they're Nicole. I had to confess, "Actually, I'm Nicole."
A sensitive person will see moments she recognizes, emotions that ring true, and worry she's a narcissist. A narcissist is not going to see it. "Oh, that character was so hilarious. You're so imaginative!"
JA: What I love about this play -- I think it would be really cool if she could get it published by, like, Playscripts, and then let it go out into the world. I think it could have a real life in theater outside of New York, because of the age of the actors and the tone. And there's no swearing, no nudity, no upsetting thoughts.
Unless you consider death upsetting.
JA: That's true. And people do, I guess.
(AN ENLIGHTENED ANNE O'SULLIVAN, SUSAN PELLEGRINO, RAY BAKER and LYNDA GRAVATT; PELLEGRINO: PHOTOS BY C.D. WILSON)