Playwright and novelist Jennifer Lane recalls exactly what the initial motivation was for her to write Harlowe, which is having its world premiere Friday at Florida Atlantic University’s Theater Lab.
It was years ago, while she was in Columbia University’s graduate playwriting program. She was falling behind in her work and the program director was growing impatient with her.
“It had been a few weeks since I had brought anything into class. He pulled me aside one day and said, ‘So we need to see some pages.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”
Lane had recently moved into a new apartment, which had a cozy bathtub that she used as a stress reliever. “So I thought, ‘I’m gonna relax, I’m going to have a bath and try to get the creative juices flowing.’
“And I just sank down below the water and I heard the first words of my play in my mind,” she recalls. “I got up, got out of the bath and while I was still in a towel I wrote that opening monologue. And three days later the play was there. It was the first time in my life that I experienced that thing that artists talk about all the time where you’re like in the zone and it virtually writes itself. That’s what it felt like.
“I don’t know where it came from, to be perfectly honest with you. I’m sure it’s a collage or a pastiche of everything I’ve taken in, but I can’t point at anything specific and say, ‘Oh, it’s based on that.’”
Not coincidentally, the title character, a young woman who has lost her sense of touch following a potent physical trauma and the sudden death of her mother, spends a lot of time onstage in her bathtub. Also not coincidentally, that production requirement has prevented most of the theaters Lane has sent the script to from saying yes to staging it.
“I had a lot of positive feedback about it, but so many places were like, ‘Um, can we do it without the water?’” says Lane. But she is adamant that the water motif – the bathtub, a swimming pool and a snowfall – is crucial to her play.
While writing Harlowe as her thesis project at Columbia, Lane was paired with a mentor – the much-acclaimed, much-produced Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone), who encouraged her to write the play in her head despite the production challenges.
“I do remember her talking about not worrying about the producibility of a play that so heavily featured water. So she sort of gave me permission to make it as impossible as I wanted to make it,” says Lane. “What I remember most from working with her was she was a very calm person and a very sweet person. I just felt buoyed by her support.”
At a later developmental workshop for Harlowe at Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, Lane was assigned a director — then-artistic director of FAU Theater Lab, Louis Tyrrell. She recalls his helping to polish the script further and, more importantly, passing it on to Matt Stabile, who was inheriting the reins of the Boca Raton stage company.
After a public reading of the play at FAU and further tweaking of the script, Stabile put Harlowe in his inaugural season, undaunted by the water issues. “Yes, he was like, ‘I’ll figure it out’,” notes Lane. “And I trust him implicitly. I know it’s going to be so beautiful. I know Matt’s idea for the bathtub is to have it front and center, which I think is perfect. I trust his vision for it so much.”
Lane was scheduled to come to Boca for the early rehearsals of this world premiere of Harlowe, but she had to cancel those plans when her 5-month-old son caught his first cold. As a result, she has never met Stabile, except on Skype. Still, from their long-distance conversations, she is confident that the play is in good hands.
“I like the way he talked about the heart of the play, which for me is how we heal. It’s definitely a story of healing. He just really gets it,” she says enthusiastically. “When he reflected back to me what he got from the play, I was like, ‘Wow, yeah. You really understand what I’m going for.’ That is such a wonderful thing to find in a collaborator. That way they can help you get it to the next level.”
Nor was Lane available to assist in casting her play, which she feels is also a challenge. At FAU, the title role will be played by Leah Sessa, seen earlier this season in Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter.
“Harlowe is a tricky character to cast,” says Lane. “The actor I had in the role for my thesis production, she had this magnetism and I feel like that’s what Harlowe needs. Harlowe doesn’t need to be traditionally beautiful, she doesn’t need to be traditionally anything, but she has to be one of those people that you can’t take your eyes off of. That you’re drawn to. It’s something you either have or you don’t. It’s not about talent or skill. It’s just about that thing that you walk into the room with.”
Being 3,000 miles away from rehearsals in California has been frustrating for Lane, but she was able to address the cast electronically. “Something I did say to them when I was Skyping in was to get very specific about each character’s relationship to their bodies,” she recalls. “To make choices about how they physically embody the characters. I know that they’ll deliver the lines beautifully, so what I really want them to think about us what their bodies are doing in space. And how they can make very clear choices for each character.
“And that’s specifically challenging for Harlowe, who doesn’t have a sense of touch. How does that affect the way she moves in space?”
Lane concedes that the tone of Harlowe is tricky, with extremes of humor and sadness, often right on top of each other. “It’s my hope that an audience will take a look at this family tragedy and find humor and healing in it. And even if they haven’t suffered the same tragedy, hopefully there’s some catharsis in it for them.”
HARLOWE, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, April 14. $35. Call 561-297-6124 or visit fauevents.com.