Dietz, one of America’s most successful, prolific living dramatists, talks about the 25th-anniversary mounting of one of his best-known works, the AIDs-era drama “Lonely Planet,” at West of Lenin.
Steven Dietz is having a Seattle Theater Moment. And it isn’t the first time, by far, for the nationally respected playwright.
One of America’s most successful, prolific living dramatists (who has never had a play produced on Broadway), Dietz spent a couple decades honing his craft and introducing his latest plays in Seattle — as well as in Chicago and elsewhere. For the past dozen years he’s split his time between this city and Austin, Texas, while teaching playwriting and directing at the University of Texas and adding to his collection of more than 30 produced scripts.
Now that he’s retired from full-time teaching, the amiable, industrious Dietz said yes to an invitation to stage a 25th-anniversary mounting of one of his best-known works, the AIDs-era drama “Lonely Planet,” at A.J. Epstein’s Fremont theater, West of Lenin. Michael Winters, who shone in the original 1993 Seattle production at ACT Theatre, reprises the role of Jody, the reclusive owner of a Seattle map store (which brings to mind Metsker Maps in Pike Place Market). Reginald Jackson plays Carl, an animated, secretive friend of Jody’s who frequently visits the store.
Another, later Dietz play, “Last of the Boys,” which unfolds in the shadow of the Vietnam War, will have a run next January at Seattle Repertory Theatre. And for the perfect Dietz trifecta, his spooky adaptation of the classic horror novella “Dracula” arrives in time for Halloween at ACT Theatre in autumn 2019.
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Dietz strolled across the bridge from his Queen Anne home to a Fremont cafe on a crisp recent morning to chat about “Lonely Planet” and other theatrical matters. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Though you’ve not lived here full-time for years, your work is often performed in Seattle and you and your wife [playwright Allison Gregory] still have a house here. Do you continue to consider this home?
Yes, this place definitely still feels like my artistic home. Austin has been great to me and my family. But in terms of the theater community here, the plays I get to write and direct, there’s no comparison.
In 2015, ACT presented the world premiere of your award-winning “Bloomsday.” But you wrote “Lonely Planet” way back in the early 1990s when so many people were still dying of AIDS, an epidemic that suffuses the play though it’s not discussed in detail.
The other plays at the time dealing with AIDS were these fantastic screeds like Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” or epics like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” They were very necessary, but I wanted to write about male friendship, and how we lean on it in difficult times. With AIDS, these important friendships were just passing away as people you loved got ill and died. I wanted to tell that story. I’m a straight man, but it was my community, too, that was grieving.
Why did you write it specifically for Laurence Ballard and Michael Winters, the two Seattle actors who first performed it here?
I just worshipped and admired them so much! Michael’s presence onstage is so quiet and formidable. Larry has this quicksilver intensity. Both of them informed the energy system of this play, but it isn’t about them as individuals. I didn’t know either of them personally when I wrote it. I just did it and said, ‘this play’s for you.’ And they very bravely dove into it.
Though AIDS hasn’t been eradicated, it’s no longer the death sentence it used to be, thanks to lifesaving drugs. How does the play resonate today?
It’s actually one of my most-produced plays, done a lot at colleges and universities. And this 25th anniversary has been very surprising, with an Off Broadway production and one in Boston also. I have teenaged kids, and I don’t know where this story sits with them. But I haven’t updated the script. There’s a landline, there’s Yellow Pages. But I hope a new and younger audience can see the play as timely for them.
It’s partly about what we don’t know about each other, about our friends. Somehow there are always gaps, always mysteries. Jody is afraid of the thing outside his door and at the time that was AIDS. But nobody gets a pass on fear, and on loss.
As always with your work there’s humor, but there’s also a streak of absurdism as Jody’s tiny map shop becomes more and more cluttered with these chairs Carl brings in. Did you borrow that idea from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic, “The Chairs”?
Honestly, I’d read Ionesco in college but not seen a play of his when I wrote this. I didn’t know what the chairs even meant until I got to the end, and realized they were furniture Carl was retrieving from the homes of friends who had died from AIDS.
The well-received “Last of the Boys,” coming soon to the Rep, is also about a friendship between two middle-aged American men. But the time, place and context are different, right?
It’s set in the Great Central Valley in California, where this Vietnam vet is holed up in a trailer. An army buddy comes to visit, and superficially this is about a more volatile friendship than in “Lonely Planet,” and it’s about guilt that’s carried from war. Also it’s a ghost story, very hallucinatory. Robert McNamara [a former Secretary of Defense, and one of the architects of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam] is the ghost.
“Lonely Planet” by Steven Dietz. Through Nov. 18; West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle; $15-$35; westoflenin.com