Springing from a prize-winning idea in 2015, Jennifer Fawcett was shaping a drama about a mother saying goodbye to her son as the award-winning playwright was preparing to say hello to her son, now age 2.
That made for an “emotional, challenging and very visceral experience” for the first-time mother.
“Apples in Winter,” running Friday (3/2) through March 18 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, follows a mother as she bakes one final apple pie for her son who is facing execution after spending 22 years on Death Row.
The one-woman show grew from a one-page proposal that won the coveted Smith Prize from the National New Play Network. It’s a $10,000 commissioning prize, so Fawcett’s half of the funds allowed her to write and develop the script at a playwright’s colony in her native Canada in the spring of 2016. The other half was split between a three-day workshop with Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre, where her husband, Sean Christopher Lewis, has worked, and to Riverside Theatre for debuting the show.
The play is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere, and will be staged in two other cities. Marquetta Senters stars in the Iowa City production, then different actors and designers will mount the script at the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown, N.J., and the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.
Fawcett will be at all three sites to watch it grow.
“I’ve read that a play isn’t done until it’s produced three times,” she said. “It changes with every stage, every actor, every director who puts their own stamp on it, and so as a playwright, it’s really fascinating to see different things come out. Something that worked in one doesn’t work in another, but then suddenly, something that you never saw before is coming out. I think of it as the elasticity of the script — how does it do in these different settings with these different actors.”
It’s the story of Miriam, coping with the imminent death of her son who brutally murdered two young people during a botched robbery committed in the grips of drug withdrawal.
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“It’s a show about empathy,” Fawcett said, with layered themes that are both timeless and timely.
“We’re definitely touching on addiction (and) capital punishment. The big thing, though, is the cost to families of these things. Understandably, when you have violent crime, the victims and the families of the victims are very much in focus,” she said.
“But there are other victims in violent crime, as well — the families of the criminals. The play is very much dealing with this idea of what went wrong, and blame and responsibility. You have this mother who is saying, ‘We had a good home, my son came from a good home. Sure, we didn’t have a lot of money, but the foundation was solid.’
“So where did this man come from,” Fawcett said. “We’re dealing with it right now in Florida. Especially when a younger person does something really horrible, people often do look at the home that person came from, with questions like, ‘Where did this monster come from?’ There’s no easy answers to that.
“Here you have the mother of the monster, so is she a monster? Is she somehow responsible for what happened? I was really interested in looking at that. She’s dealing with grief, obviously, but she’s also dealing with questions of guilt and blame — did I have some role in what happened? She’s been ostracized by her family and by friends. She’s a very lonely person. ...
“Suddenly she’s now facing the death of a child in a way that most people don’t ever have to deal with: a planned death. There’s all the grief of that, and it’s this mix of grief and anger and guilt that she’s floating around in. She’s also got all these wonderful memories of her son, and how do those fit into person that he became?”
So Miriam pours her energy into baking him an apple pie, so rehearsing the play also meant conducting crash-courses in that art.
“That maybe sounds ridiculous,” Fawcett said, “but there are many, many steps in making a pie, and they have to be integrated into the text. We spent a lot of time dealing with dough and apples.”
Despite the serious subject matter, the play offers lighter moments.
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“Marquetta is wonderful with that,” Fawcett said. “She is such a fantastic comedic actress. She is an incredibly grounded person who has the ability to find humor in dark moments — not in a way that belittles the moment, but in a way that softens and humanizes it. She has incredible emotional depth. The actress has to go on an incredible roller coaster ride, and be willing to go to all the places the character has to go. ...
“It’s going to be a really beautiful production,” Fawcett said. “I’m really looking forward to going on the ride with the audience.”
WHAT: “Apples in Winter”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (3/2) to March 18; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $18 to $30, Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/applesinwinter
TALKBACKS: Following these performances: Friday (3/2), director Beth Wood and playwright Jennifer Fawcett; Saturday (3/3), Inside Out Reentry, serving people returning from incarceration; March 8, actress Marquetta Senters with host Miriam Gilbert; March 9, Kathrina Litchfield from University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and Rod Courtney from CRUSH (Community Resources United to Stop Heroin in Iowa); March 10, Ellen Lewin, professor, UI Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies
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