Palm Beach Dramaworks has been serving up thought-provoking productions of classic plays for 17 seasons, but it also understands the importance of developing new works for the theater. So it created the Dramaworkshop, a program of staged readings, workshops and bare-bones productions, searching for material for its mainstage, plays that can vie side-by-side with Albee, Williams and O’Neill.
It may have found one in Jennifer Faletto’s Domestic Animals, developed by the company last year and about to meet audiences in the intimate – 37 seats – upstairs Perlberg Studio Theatre under Margaret Ledford’s direction, starting Friday and running through Jan. 22.
Set at the height of the Vietnam War, Domestic Animals centers on a housewife named Lori, whose husband enlists at the same time that her brother dodges the draft. Left alone, Lori disappears into a hospital mental ward or, perhaps, into her imagination.
At Dramaworks, the three-member cast will consist of Betsy Graver, Clay Cartland and Alex Alvarez.
The cherubic Faletto is too young to have firsthand memories of the Vietnam War, but her father flew helicopters in the conflict and she grew up in Alaska hearing stories about it over the dinner table. So when her playwriting class gave an assignment on childhood recollections, she wrote about a couple in Alaska and the husband who went off flying.
She liked the story, but felt it had insufficient conflict. And when a later class exercise was to flip the situation to the opposite extreme, Faletto pondered, “What’s the very opposite of the freedom of living in Alaska, having adventures? It’s confinement in the middle of nowhere. The tension then became how did she get there. The grief and loss wasn’t because her husband was gone flying for six weeks, it needed to be something else, something more. It just kept evolving.”
Trained as an actor at Texas Christian University, Faletto took a circuitous route to writing plays.
“I lived in Chicago for about 10 years, since the early ’90s. And I started taking classes at Second City, where you’re doing improvs, but then after you do the improv you sit down and you pen the scene,” she explains. “That’s where you make the changes and figure out the rhythm. I liked that a lot, being creative and structuring scenes.
“The thing about writing is no one has to hire you to do it. You can do it on your own time. I spent some time after Chicago living in Australia, where it was really difficult for me to be hired as an actor, because of my accent and such. But by writing, I could be creative all day long if I wanted to.”
Ledford says of the playwright, “She’s very funny. She has a great way of making this very sad story have these very light, human moments. Beyond the humanity of the drama, she has such a great development of these characters. I’m not going to go so far to say she has a feminist view, but in this particular play it’s about a woman in 1970 whose options are not as accessible as they are to us in 2017.”
Last year’s work on the play here helped the script evolve “in ways large and small,” says Faletto. “Just having the play in the hands of actors is so valuable because – I’m an actor as well, so I really trust and respect actors – when they say, ‘Oh, god, I hate this scene’ or ‘this dialogue,’ it’s usually for a good reason, so let’s have a look. They know when it doesn’t flow, they know when there’s nothing active for them to do, they know when the rhythm of something is so uncomfortable that they can’t say it easily.”
As Ledford says of the earlier developmental work, “We’ve done some scene flipping and then we made sure – without spoon-feeding it to the audience – sure that the story is being told. In essence, it follows the same arc it always followed.”
The director says she particularly likes “the idea of the magical journey. The idea of magical transformation elicits a lot of great imagery. As well as the isolation, that you can be one of the most intelligent people on the planet and your mind can still play tricks with you. You can give in to your grieving so far that you’re in a downward spiral, you’re just concaving on yourself.”
Faletto emphasizes that “the play is not realism, which is a departure from a lot of what Dramaworks has done. I’m wondering how that will resonate with people. There are ambiguous things. I think the ending is ambiguous. That’s intentional. I know what I think has happened and it’s not literal. Is that going to be satisfying for people? So I’m interested in how they respond to that, how they respond to some of the themes of the play.”
Although it hasn’t happened yet, the goal of the Dramaworkshop is to take a play from draft form to a mainstage production. The audience is a significant part of that process. Each performance of Domestic Animals will be followed by a talkback and a Q&A session.
DOMESTIC ANIMALS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, Perlberg Studio Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, Jan. 13-22. $25. 561-513-4042.