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ometimes the best work we produce, comes from the experiences most personal to us. That definitely seems to be the thought behind the new play Visiting Hours, by Joshua Kaplan. Directed by Dina Vovsi, the play is being performed this weekend as an AEA showcase at Theaterlab in New York.
The description on the website is as follows. "Decades of conflict has left the Stein family set in an unspoken state of war. But when the family’s crazy – though not insane — matriarch lands in the ICU, the perpetual silence is permanently broken, uncovering old wounds and creating new ones. Uncompromising in reflection and unflinchingly witty, Joshua Kaplan’s Visiting Hours follows the Steins as they attempt to navigate the present in the shadow of the past."
I had a chance to talk with Mr. Kaplan about the play and its path thus far.
CP: Tell me about the inspiration for the show?
JK: My mother passed away last year, after a long illness. Our relationship was very close, and very complicated. I saw so much of my world through the lens of my relationship with her. As her primary caregiver for the last years of her life -- for equally complicated reasons -- my life became increasingly tied up with hers, as caregivers' lives often do. When the focal point of your life disappears, the space left behind is as practical as it is emotional. For so long, nothing in your life was only yours; suddenly, everything in your life is yours alone. There are chains in the freedom. Nobody talks about the chains, the fear of being set free, in the midst of the profound pain of loss.
So I wrote a comedy about it!
I'm kidding, of course, but only partly. Visiting Hours does indeed have a strong comedic bent. When a dear friend suggested I use my experience as inspiration, I could only do so by inserting some light, levity, humor in the darkness. Perhaps it's a defense mechanism, needing to find the humor in pain, but as far as defense mechanisms go, it's a relatively productive one. And when I say the experience was my inspiration, I mean that this is not an autobiographical play. It is a play about my family, sure, but only because it's about everybody's family. There are dynamics in families we can all relate to, universal conditions that define human relationships. Visiting Hours uses my experience as a jumping off point to explore those dynamics, in a pressure cooker setting in which there are no "good guys" or "bad guys," no "victims" and no "perpetrators." We are all both some of the time, and neither all the time.
And I'm just now realizing, that's a great deal of pressure for a play with poop jokes.
CP: What should we know about this cast?
JK: Besides the fact that they are all fabulous?
One idea I always have in mind in creating characters is diversity. I don't mean only racial, gender, LGBTQ, or other common definitions of diversity, though those are important ideals I strive for, and, like many writers, often fall short of. More so, for this play and all of my plays, is diversity in terms of who these people are -- what is their essential self? Our cast reflects this individuality to a T.
Michael Grew and Amy Gaipa play brother and sister, but in terms of who they are, they could be from different planets; this is not an easy dynamic to create, but Michael and Amy are so talented, so in touch with their selves and characters, you believe both that they are siblings and wonder how the hell these people both come from the same family. Playing the father, Dan Grimaldi -- of Sopranos fame -- elevates what could be a clueless parental figure, just a cypher for the kids' neuroses, to a fully-formed, complex character with his own purpose and reason for being. With charm and warmth -- traits often lacking in the family -- Joel Stigliano and Karen Tsen Lee bring the outsiders' point of view to this family that seems like it can never see beyond itself; Karen encapsulates this so well, we have taken to calling her character the "heart" of the play. As the medical professionals unfortunately tasked with helping this family through the crisis, Richarda Abrams and Adam Bemis are far from secondary footnotes: as anyone who has experienced similar crises knows, the doctors and nurses who see you through the process become your guides, foundations, personal compasses. Richarda and Adam beautifully reflect these traits with seemingly endless reserves of compassion and empathy. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Maureen Shannon, who plays the mother, a non-speaking role (we hear her only in a voicemail message). Maureen has brought an amazing amount of dedication to her part, graciously allowing the action to circulate around her, giving the rest of the cast an anchor to play with and against. It's far harder than it sounds, and she does it with pride and love.
I am blessed, eight times over, with this cast.
CP: What has it been like collaborating with Dina Vovsi?
My first interaction with Dina was supposed to be a quick phone call to describe the project. We ended up talking for over an hour. I was immediately struck by Dina's seriousness of purpose and sincerity. I could tell that this was a person I could trust completely with an intensely personal project. When we met in person, all of my initial impressions were confirmed. From day one, she has treated this play like her own -- for her, directing is not just a job, it's a purpose. This isn't an easy play to direct either. Not only is there a big cast to wrangle, but it shifts tone on a dime; one moment you're laughing, the next you're crying. That's not something just anyone can tackle, it takes an open heart as well as an ear for comic timing. I knew that Dina had the maturity and the emotional depth to take on all of this play's many challenges.
Our greatest challenge has been that, unfortunately, my paying work -- we all know this song, don't we? -- has kept me away from New York during the rehearsal process. This was unexpected, as I had hoped to be around and experience the process, but as the great Beyonce sang, bills, bills, bills. Fortunately, Dina has more than lived up to the challenges, as I knew she would. Her script notes have been consistently on point, in both the comic and dramatic moments. One note will say something like "this joke isn't working" and the next will be a detailed consideration of the darkest moment of the play. I don't think she's given me a note that I did not think, huh, that's a good point. And the cast and creative team -- our scenic designer, Frank Oliva, lighting designer, Jason Fok, and sound designer, Emma Wilk -- as well as our stage manager Ryan Keller and assistant stage manager Krystle Henninger (all of whom also have been wonderful and wonderfully dedicated) have raved nonstop about working with Dina. The only downside is it makes me even sadder not to be there during rehearsals, but I take a special satisfaction in being the person that brings other people together. Sometimes when I throw a party, the extrovert in me gets overwhelmed and I end up hiding in the bathroom for half the party. But I still enjoy the party because I know other people are having fun. It's not as fun as being there, but it's gratifying nonetheless.
CP: What do you hope people take away from your play?
JK: Hope that even the deepest wounds can be healed.