Playwright Rosary O'Neill Discusses Her New Play, Wishing Aces
The play focuses on a runaway housewife named Kitten and Beau, a Tulane professor who Kitten has taken as a lover. The pair travel by train through a Louisiana swamp until Kitten's son, Bunky, arrives to stop their elopement. As the tensions rise, a hurricane crashes onto land, wrecking-havoc all around them.
Rosary recently discussed this play and her anticipations regarding its future via an exclusive interview.
How did you think up the plot for Wishing Aces and why did you select that title?
At one point in my life, I had several fellowships to go to Ole Miss (in Oxford Miss) from New Orleans. I rode an old Amtrak back and forth six hours with another colleague and I fantasized about what it would be like to be trapped on the train at a whistle-stop over the Pearl River Swamp. When you look out the train window there are miles and miles of Bayou and then after that there is more river and inlets. Louisiana is surrounded by water and you can hardly drive a few miles without coming into direct contact with it. So, I guess being a New Orleanian, I always have a fear of the “Big One,” that is, the hurricane that does everybody in. I guess also I had friends whose children were teens and totally out-of-control, and who had lovers with relationships that were out-of-control, and so the whole whirlwind of love and hurricanes became interesting to me. You can’t live in Louisiana without always having the fantasy of hopping a train to another, more urban, “Big Apple” kind of life.
I have taught in many English departments with many brilliant esoteric men who are totally genius in the mind but who have huge disappointments and corruptions inside. The character of the troubled macho lover hero was also fascinating. In the South there is the mystique that a macho man can have a soul and mind. Wishing Aces is an old Southern card game that I played as a child. In the game, you make a wish and flip every third card in the deck and if an ace comes up you get your wish. As a girl, I totally believed in card games like Solitaire, and Hearts, and Wishing Aces, and Black Jack and I have plays named after the games!
We played cards mostly in summers on hot front porches and on four-poster beds, dressed in white, near swimming pools and audacious front lawns. In the South, the weather is a magical mix of rain and sun and warm breeze. Mostly it cooperates with our fantasies, until hurricane season.
How much research did you have to do before writing this play?
I lived this play most of my life in New Orleans. There is an Amtrak station smack in the center of New Orleans and many students hop that train for the Ole Miss football games. The Center of Southern Studies is also at Ole Miss and so I would take the train when I got fellowships and traveled with the alcoholics and students who also boarded the train eager for intellectual or athletic games and weary for the bucolic countryside of Mississippi.
You don’t really know how long those swamps can seem till you travel from New Orleans to Batesville on that slow train. Many passengers play cards on tables that fold out between the seats and many still sneak cigarettes between the cars. But one has the feeling of riding into water. The big stop is at Batesville, which is still a thirty-minute ride to Oxford. I would think of Oxford England and how intensely urban and male and heroic that campus seems compared to the rambling campus of rural Ole Miss, the flagship university of Mississippi. At one point, I almost called the play “On the Way to Oxford” since it felt like I had to go through a swamp of Netherworld before finding civilization!
What most interests you about the characters of Kitten, Beau, and Bunky?
Kitten interests me because she is privileged and vulnerable and lost. Her whole marriage and sense of success is rooted in her love for her lost son. She’s called “Kitten” because she is doll-like beautiful and because southern women who are strong mostly have names that remind you of tiny things or foods…like Pudding, or Peaches, or Tootsie, or Bunny. “Beau” means “gorgeous” in French and that is what a male hero should be! He’s athletic, wealthy, and refined but that exterior masks a failed and tortured man. New Orleanians like short original names even for their men so that’s how I thought up the name “Bunky.” My brother’s name is Buzz and I originally wrote the role for my actor son, Barret, so maybe that influenced me too.
Do you feel like all the characters are sympathetic or did you intentionally make the actions of some more understandable or innocent than others?
I hope all the characters are sympathetic. Like children, I love them all the same. You have to write from the heart. Since I started my career as an actress, I want to make each part something that inspires an actor to want to play it.
A hurricane is prominently featured in this story, so have you ever experienced one of these powerful and frightening storms first-hand?
I didn’t experience Katrina but I have experienced many hurricanes. My parents had a mansion on the Gulf of Mexico and my father bought a barometer which read Good, Fair, Rain, Stormy, and Hurricane. When the barometer pointed to Hurricane, we drove the fifty miles from our country house into New Orleans! We lived in fear of a hurricane, and the family mansion on the Gulf of Mexico had a history of going down and being rebuilt in 1927, 1947, 1969, and then again in 2005. Windows would get blown out in our city house or the roof might take a beating. It was nothing too serious, but you always knew there was the chance one big hurricane would knock you all out for good. As awful as it sounds, I can remember sometimes praying for a hurricane when I was a little just to liven things up! Before Katrina, which destroyed so much, a hurricane party mainly meant hanging out with friends and dancing and singing and drinking in the rain.
What are your favorite things about Wishing Aces and did you face any issues such as writers block while you were working on it?
My favorite things about it are love and terror! Those two emotions together coupled with the dazzling and magnetic heroes in crisis! I love romance and water rising at the same time. Oh goodness, can we survive a hurricane of love or a hurricane of life? The best things come at us front and center--like the theatre on opening night!
How did you find out about Gallery Players in Brooklyn and what was the process of submitting your play to them like?
Benno Haenel, the co-artistic director with Judith Estrine of Prism Theatre Company, is in the Actors Studio Playwrights’ Workshop with me. Last year, he asked me to submit a play for a workshop reading at the Gallery Theatre. The Gallery Theatre and Prism Theatre Company have an ongoing partnership for readings. The reading of my play “John Singer Sargent and Madame X” was so successful that Benno Haenel asked me to submit a play to his reading series and, fortunately, Wishing Aces was selected. Benno has championed my work and I am very grateful!
Ideally, where do you want to fully produce this play and what kinds of sets, props, lighting, and sound would you like to incorporate into the production?
The play takes place on a bare stage with mostly lights and sound effects and I love that. The idea of isolation and containment and explosions of light fascinates me for the staging. So much can be done with liquid light and sound and I love the bareness of theatre that gives focus to the actor and language.
What other creative projects or events are on the horizon for you?
I have a book coming out in October 2018 about New Orleans. It is called “The Art of Voodoo and Spirituality in 19th Century New Orleans” by History Press. I am developing my play titled Monty, Marilyn, Liz in the Playwrights’ Workshop of Actors Studio in New York. In 2018, I plan to be teaching writing at the Open Center in New York City in the spring and at Omega in Rhinebeck, New York in the summer. Also on the books is a production of my play Marilyn/God at the Roxy Regional Theatre in Clarksville, Tennessee, from April 30 to May 8, 2018. I am also finalizing two books of narrative nonfiction: “Degas in New Orleans” and “Sweet and Easy,” which is a gothic journey into “Garden District Death.”
I am really enjoying the process of developing my new vampire play/comedy called Vampire New Orleans at HB Studio s in NYC with my mentor and teacher, Julie McKee. The whole experience of life and after life and living on the edge between the living, the undead, and the dead totally mesmerizes me! I am hoping to grow closer to God and to clarity about our journey here together through my writing.