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Playwright Tracy Letts unravels different ages of identity in a single life

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts has famously depicted family dysfunction, but his latest play, “Mary Page Marlowe,” is more concerned with questions of identity, examining the life of its protagonist from infancy to old age in non-linear fashion to find out what makes her herself. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the play and Letts’s creative process.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A new play by one of the nation's leading playwrights who's known for his domestic dramas asks the question, what makes us us?

    Jeffrey Brown went to Chicago, where his latest play opened this weekend to find out.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Eleven scenes that capture the life of a woman, from infancy to age 69, but it's told out of chronological order. And she's played by six different actresses.

    "Mary Page Marlowe," the new play by Tracy Letts, is just now opening.

  • MAN:

    It sounds different every time you do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But when I visited in early March, rehearsals had just begun. And when I said it was odd to be there talking about a play I hadn't seen, Letts reminded me of something rather important if you happen to be the playwright.

  • TRACY LETTS, Playwright/Actor:

    I haven't seen it either.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You haven't seen it either. Do you know what you have at this point?

  • TRACY LETTS:

    Normally, at this point, you have a pretty good sense of what you have. But "Mary Page Marlowe" is an unusual piece, the nonlinear narrative, the different women playing the character. I think I know what we have got, but until there's an audience in the room, I won't really know.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Letts, now 50, is best known for the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County," later made into a film. It tells of an Oklahoma family in, as a "New York Times" review put it, in near apocalyptic meltdown of dysfunctional behavior.

    Letts is also an acclaimed actor. He won a Tony Award in 2013 for his role in another famous dysfunctional relationship drama, Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" More recently, he's starred in the TV drama "Homeland" and the film "The Big Short."

  • TRACY LETTS:

    The housing market is rock-solid.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The new play has its own share of unruly behavior, but its focus is the deep subject of identity.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    If you sit at all in the question of what makes you you, and you start to ask yourself, is it my parents, my background, my geographical background, my age, my gender, what are the things that make you you?

  • ACTRESS:

    We pretend I'm making decisions about my life. I am not. I haven't.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Letts says he was inspired to write the play after the death of his mother 18 months ago.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    You spend a lot of time and reflection about your parents' life, their journey. "Mary Page Marlowe" is not my mother, though she's inspired by my mother, and she's inspired by the idea that we are different people at different points in our life.

    In fact, my 17-year-old self wouldn't recognize the man I am now. And I don't recognize him much either.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So that makes life a constant surprise, right?

  • TRACY LETTS:

    Maybe it speaks to some — to something in me I have — some searching in me. I don't know. I know that I'm a hell of a lot more comfortable at 50, comfortable with who I am than I was with myself at 30 or at 17.

    The monologue, I'm still working on it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Some of the comfort clearly comes from his long association with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a renowned incubator, with an ensemble of writers and actors who've had a major influence on the world of American theater and beyond.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    I can afford to take chances. I can afford to make a fool of myself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Because they will keep you around anyway.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    They will keep me around anyway, and they will tell me, they will tell me to my face, you didn't get this right.

  • ANNA SHAPIRO, Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre:

    Here are a couple of things that I think might help.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of those truth-tellers is longtime friend and collaborator Anna Shapiro, who's directed numerous plays at Steppenwolf and on Broadway, and was recently named the company's artistic director. She's now taken on "Mary Page Marlowe."

  • ANNA SHAPIRO:

    Have a really inappropriate response.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The first big challenge of this play, Shapiro said, was to make sure that a story that jumps around chronologically didn't feel out of order.

  • ANNA SHAPIRO:

    You just have to kind of expand your definition of what is chronology. I'm not sure life is happening in order anyway.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, the way a life unfolds and — yes.

  • ANNA SHAPIRO:

    The way life feels. The way life feels. I just think when you get older — and I think Tracy and I are getting a little bit older — you do start to understand the kind of inevitable arbitrariness of life. And it feels unrelentingly arbitrary.

  • CARRIE COON, Actress:

    Really? You don't know?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We watched an early rehearsal, in which Mary Page at age 36 is talking to her therapist. She's played by Tracy Letts' wife, Carrie Coon.

    During a key monologue, director Anna Shapiro was bothered.

  • ANNA SHAPIRO:

    My ear is jumping at "someone called."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    After some discussion, the playwright came up with a new line.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    "I just found out my college girlfriend Lorna died from breast cancer last month, and I'm sitting here talking about compartments."

  • ANNA SHAPIRO:

    That's awesome.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The tweaking, Letts told me later at his home as he and Coon made dinner, would continue.

  • TRACY LETTS:

    Every time I write a new play, we sit down, we read the thing, and the fear is that people are going to say, this is garbage and they are going to take it and they're going to throw it away and say, you have done something just terrible.

    The hope is that they're going to carry me out of the theater on their shoulders, carry me down the street, saying, he's a genius, he's a genius. But the reality is that good, smart people working around me say, OK, let's get to work.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Letts and Coon met as actors in "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"

  • CARRIE COON:

    It's really hard to find good roles for women, and my husband happens to be one of those people who's actually writing roles that dignify women, because he deeply respects them. And everybody in his plays, they're all in there somewhere, all the people. So I feel like I'm married to a lot of people. It's exciting. It's never boring.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A nice domestic scene, with a playwright renowned for the very opposite.

    So where does all that dysfunction come from?

  • TRACY LETTS:

    It's drama. If I wrote — if I just wrote about the healthy side of myself, it wouldn't be very interesting or dramatic.

  • CARRIE COON:

    A married couple makes aloo gobi in the kitchen.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TRACY LETTS:

    It doesn't make for a great scene.

  • CARRIE COON:

    He cuts the potatoes too small. She's irritated, but she doesn't saying anything.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Not great theater, perhaps, but a fine dinner.

    From Chicago, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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