Playwright Allison Gregory sat down with Seattle playwright (and Gregory’s husband) Steven Dietz to discuss his inspiration for bringing this story to the stage.

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Intimate, funny and fierce, “Last of the Boys” by renowned local playwright Steven Dietz is the story of Vietnam War vet Ben and his battle with the ghosts of his past. In the stark beauty of California’s Central Valley, Ben’s ghosts are suddenly made flesh when his unpredictable war buddy Jeeter shows up and old wounds are peeled back open. Called “blisteringly good” by the Chicago Sun Times, “Last of the Boys” features an ensemble cast.

Steven Dietz
Steven Dietz

Recently, playwright Allison Gregory sat down with Seattle playwright (and Gregory’s husband) Steven Dietz to discuss his inspiration for bringing this story to the stage.

Allison Gregory

I’ve never interviewed a playwright, or my husband, before. This is going to be fun — or the end of our marriage. So, you set out to write a play about male friendship, and then along the way the Vietnam war got involved. How intentional was that?

Steven Dietz

The notion of McNamara preceded the notion of friendship. I had been obsessed with McNamara for a while, just as a history lover and news junkie, and so I had all this information about him, but I didn’t know how to tell McNamara’s story. I must have been looking for a sort of portal for it. And then I had a commission from San Jose Repertory Theatre to write a new play for them, and the only stipulation is that it had to have something to do with California — it had to be regional somehow. So, I thought, well, I want to write my McNamara play, he had some California ties, I’ll just set it in the Great Central Valley. And when I set it in the Great Central Valley, then the notion of this Vietnam vet living in a trailer off the grid came in, and that somehow freed me from writing a “McNamara” play. Suddenly I had a loner in a trailer —and then that man’s best friend came — and suddenly the friendship came into the play. I’ve long thought that this play is not “about” Vietnam any more than my play “Lonely Planet” is about HIV/AIDS. Those are external events used to pressurize the friendships and relationships inside the plays.

AG

In this play, how much do the characters reflect people you know … or are currently living with? Because all the characters come in with really strong personalities and needs.

SD

I don’t have a one-on-one point of contact between specific people I know or we know and those characters. However, I can see them as almost uber-types of certain friends I know. The character of Jeeter — this crazy shamanic dude — has parallels to a dear friend of mine, but it’s not his story. Lorraine, the angry Vietnam widow — I don’t know that woman but I know women adjacent to her, in a sense. I also suspect the very naturalistic feel of the play made me a little nervous (it had been a long time since I’d written a “realistic,” “real-time” play), and so I wanted to heighten the people. Take their fears or obsessions and put them into overdrive.

AG

How do you view your male friendships versus how you view my female friendships?

SD

Oh this is dangerous territory! I think you and your friends have way more fireworks, and we have, like, big slow tectonic plates shifting. They’re not earthquakes. The best description I ever came up with for the end of a male friendship … is like you walk down to the basement to get something and the basement’s just not there. It’s a quiet thing.

I think we like to make fun of male friendships; there’re jokes in this play about male friendships. But the fact that we jokingly diminish male friendship means we also diminish how it feels when it ends. I’ve seen how complicated it is when a friendship of yours ends. I think male friendship tends to be quieter. And I believe it can be extraordinarily deep. Something I respect about male friendship is that it is seldom effervescent. It survives time. I also think men don’t know how to end them. In my life when a male friendship ends, it doesn’t end with a bang; it ends with a whimper. Of course, it has to end with some kind of bang in “Last of the Boys” because it’s a play — but I hope the play maintains the ghost quality of male friendship. I’m not always in the same city as my close circle of male friends … but I feel that they “ghost” in my life in a powerful way. In a play that is also a ghost story, that seems right to me.

AG

Here’s the first sentence of the play — the stage description: “You might wonder who lives here. An old rusted trailer; a dirt and gravel yard, old trees forming a canopy behind. You got lost out you’d need directions.” To me it sounded like your dad, the brevity and sort of straightforwardness. The legacy of fathers haunts this play. And I know you were deeply close to your dad. Your dad was alive when you wrote this play, but you lost him shortly after it premiered at the McCarter Theatre in 2004. Can you talk about how, and if, his absence impacts the way you experience this story?

SD

Yes, it can’t not, right? John Victor Dietz must be right in the center of this play, somehow. I think of it in terms of gaps. I felt very close to my father, and loved by him, but I also felt a gap. A gap of secrets my dad had (including his service in WWII) or parts of myself that I didn’t share with him. And those are regrets now, but I suspect I’m not the only son who feels this way about his father. And was he aware of this? Did he feel a gap between himself and me? I’ll never know … Also, sitting here across the table from you, I’m aware that the first few productions of this play happened exactly between my dad’s death and the year we adopted our son, Abraham. In some ways this play is a bridge in time that connects my father and my son, who never met each other.

AG

Okay, so you just left teaching at the University of Texas after 12 years. And in that time, you somehow managed to write, like, 17 plays.

SD

Yeah. Sorry, America.

AG

How does teaching inform your creative impulses?

SD

The great thing about full-time teaching was that it made me come up with language for what my plays do and how they do it. I had never had to do that before. And I believe that, in turn, sharpened my craft. A lot of “Last of the Boys” was written by instinct (or so I thought) … but now after 12 years of full-time teaching, I can hear a scene read and think: “Okay, yes, that’s a turn, that’s a reversal, that’s a shift in status, that’s a story point I can complicate later,” etc. What I thought was instinct was likely craft, but 12 years ago, I did not have language for it.

AG

This is an important play for you. It must feel great to have it finally find a theater home in Seattle, a city we love, after all these years.

SD

It’s a very powerful feeling. I’m so grateful. When I think about how long I wanted to write a play that became this play, and then to have Braden Abraham say to me that he had heard a reading of it at the Rep, maybe back around 2003? And that he had been looking for a chance to do it? That made my day. I didn’t expect anything after that, it just made me so happy that someone was still thinking about this play of mine. And then a year ago he said, “No, I’m not kidding, I’m gonna find a way to do it.” And now he has. It’s so meaningful.

AG

2003? That would’ve been during “Go Dog Go!”.

SD

Few people are aware that they are companion plays. Can I say one thing about my pal, Joe Sedlachek? So now I had a trailer and some guys, and McNamara is gonna figure in this, somehow. And it was just all false starts. I couldn’t start it. I kept listening to my ’60s music, and I couldn’t start it. So instead, one night I just started the play as a letter to Joe, who is a Vietnam vet. And I sent it to him. So, Joe alone has a version of “Last of the Boys” where the opening stage direction is “Hi Joe. I’m stuck. I’m trying to write a play about these guys, and I know you were there. And I’m trying to write a play about friendship, and you’re my friend. And I hope I can find a way to do this.” And it was me trying to find a connection — thinking that if I talked to Joe, a dear pal of mine who was over there, who the play is dedicated to, it might give me some traction. And it did. It got me into the first scene.

AG

It got you a connection.

SD

A big connection. And then Joe worked as an adviser at the premiere of the play at the McCarter Theatre — and on other productions after that, at theaters where I was not even involved with the play. And now — fittingly — Joe and his family live here in Seattle, so he’s going to work on the show here at the Rep, get to be around and talk to the cast and Braden and everyone. And again, when you asked what the connections are between people I know and this play — “Last of the Boys” is not Joe’s story. But Joe is a spirit guide for this story.

AG

That seems apropos for a play like this.

SD

I think so.

AG

Well, Steven Dietz, it’s been a real pleasure. Anything else?

SD

I love you.

AG

I don’t know if I can put that in.

Last of the Boys plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre Jan. 18 – Feb. 10.