When Beth Henley was a little girl, in genteel Jackson, Miss., her mother would often drive past Eudora Welty's house. "I would look up at the window and see her typing," Henley recalls. "My mom said ‘She's a writer, and she's internationally known.' To actually see a woman writer, at that time, was something kind of amazing."
In 1981, Henley received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for her play Crimes of the Heart, making her Jackson's second (famous) woman writer.
Henley, whose other works include The Miss Firecracker Contest, The Lucky Spot, The Debutante Ball and Am I Blue, shares Welty's affinity for quirky Southern characters, their unique predilections and most especially their honeyed back-and-forth dialogue.
It's probably no surprise that her favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams.
The 58 year-old playwright lives in Los Angeles; lately she's been traveling back and forth to New York City, where her play Family Time has just opened off-Broadway.
The Family Time director is Academy Award-winning Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Something Wild). An odd choice, perhaps - Demme's never before directed live theater - but then, Beth Henley has always sought out and celebrated the odd.
Why is Impossible Marriage set in Savannah?
Beth Henley: These people are kind of wonderfully entitled people. I wanted them to live in a place that was beautiful and cultured, but kind of had roots grown into the characters. So your family's name was important. What you did, morally, was more important than it would be in, say, Los Angeles.
I wanted somewhere where it was important to be a moral, upstanding person and make your family name look good. And there was such a thing as scandal and betrayal. And it had high consequences.
It sounds like you could throw a dart and hit any number of southern cities that fit that bill. So why Savannah?
Beth Henley: Savannah I think is just so beautiful. It has such a mystery to it, and besides having that it also has this idiosyncratic thing, of "people can just jump out and do wild anything." It kind of has a duality to it that I was drawn to.
I'd like to ask about your friendship with Sharon Ott.
Beth Henley: She did a beautiful production of a play of mine called Ridiculous Fraud in California. It takes place in New Orleans, and she was just obsessive about learning about the South. I think she's a genuinely curious and kind of perceptive person. Whatever she's doing the play about, she wants to know the heart of it, and the language, and the roots.
So I was thrilled that she was going to do this play, especially in Savannah. It's never been done in Savannah, as far as I know.
Where does Impossible Marriage fall on your list of your favorite works?
Beth Henley: I like it very much. It all happens in one day - or, I guess the course of one night - and the characters all get to change and get to wear pretty outfits.
What's it like working with Jonathan Demme?
Beth Henley: It's really been, I don't know, a dream come true to work with him. He's so brilliant, and it's extraordinary how he synthesizes things and thinks on his feet. His mind can just contain so much. It's really thrilling.
Is it a challenge or an asset to have a visually-minded film director who's never done live theater before?
Beth Henley: I don't know that it's an asset ... certainly, there are things that are done different, but I think the basic things - just telling the story, having a pace, having kind of the tone and the heart, and the characters, is very similar to film.
When you won the Pulitzer, did that up the ante for you as a writer? Was it "I have to be brilliant every time now"?
Beth Henley: You just do the best you can. Because that play went so well, I had the luxury of being able to be a writer for my life. Even though I've had plays that have not done as well, by far, at least I've been able to keep writing this long.
I think you just have to go on to the next one. It's really about you and your play, and you try to make it good.
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