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News Theresa Rebeck’s topical play blends satire, humor, humanity

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Playwright Theresa Rebeck, left, and director Sandy Robbins.

Two of Theresa Rebeck's favorite lines from her upcoming production of O Beautiful reveal much about the play and perhaps even more about the playwright herself.

In a classroom discussion about the Founding Fathers, a young student — a victim of date rape who is now pregnant — has choice words for one, in particular. Her lines are funny and outrageous.

And in a far different scene — the climax of the play — a mother, mourning the suicide of her son and speaking before the town hall, exclaims, "At night I tell myself that we are all together, through time, the dead and the living. That we share creation with our ghosts."

O Beautiful is a play about Theresa Rebeck's America, written specifically for the University's professional theatre company, the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) and the Professional Theatre Training Program.

Premiering April 22 at the Roselle Center for the Arts after preview performances on April 20 and 21, it is, according to a New York Times article, "a satirical look at the politics of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and the failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, as dramatized through [an] abortion story and a related, fictitious incident of bullying at a high school."

"It's as topical as tonight's newscast, yet filled with the humor and humanity behind the headlines," writes Nadine Howatt, theatre marketing and public relations coordinator, in a synopsis on the REP website.

The play takes place in a fictionalized Delaware, where Jesus and the country's founding fathers share the stage with contemporary political pundits and residents of a small, rural town.

 
Rehearsing a scene from "O Beautiful."

"Those who came before us -- their greatness and tragedy -- they walk amongst us and live with us in a very potent and visceral way," says Rebeck, who was commissioned by the departments of English and Theatre to guest teach a variety of English courses, deliver a lecture to students in the Freshmen Year Experience program and create a play for the University's 19 professional actors.

In a time when contemporary playwrights are being told to write for small casts ("a production with five actors is considered big"), she was immediately drawn to the project and to "the fantastic actors."

Rebeck is an American playwright, television writer, novelist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and executive producer (alongside Steven Spielberg) of Smash, an NBC pilot that will debut this fall. Raised in "a very Catholic" household in Ohio, she read the Bible "from cover-to-cover several times" and initially sought to write about a girl trying to have an abortion with nobody to talk to. "It's a story that just seems real to me," she says.

But to write for 19 people, she realized, "you better have something epic to say."

She started O Beautiful in the summer of 2010, finishing the second act just a few months before the Tea Party's primary election victory shifted Delaware into the national spotlight.

No fan of the recent populist movement, Rebeck had a rather tragic epiphany when, while writing the script, she watched a TV interview of a mother whose child had just committed suicide after being bullied.

 
Theresa Rebeck and Sandy Robbins speak with cast members.

"Her soul was gone and she cried, ‘How could the other kids do that?'" Rebeck remembers. "When I saw it in the context of the news, I thought, ‘How could they not? Especially when the wider world has become a bunch of bullies.'"

And so she asked herself a question that O Beautiful in many ways aims to answer: "How did we get here?"

Rebeck is the University's first playwright-in-residence. Her commission did not come from state or tuition dollars but was funded by a private $50,000 grant from the Unidel Foundation, administered through the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center (IHRC).

"As a great university, we embrace the arts. We embrace free thought and a free stage of ideas," says Ann Ardis, deputy dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the IHRC. "People will love this play and hate it, too, but that is the purpose of art —to spark dialogue and make you think."

And that, in essence, is Rebeck's goal.

"Who are we becoming? Who are we allowing ourselves to become? Where is our compassion," Rebeck says of the questions she hopes the play raises. "These are not political questions," she adds. "These are larger philosophical issues."

O Beautiful runs from April 20 to May 15. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 302-831-2204. This production contains adult language and situations and is recommended for mature audiences.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Two of Theresa Rebeck's favorite lines from her upcoming production of O Beautiful reveal much about the play and perhaps even more about the playwright herself. In a classroom discussion about the Founding Fathers, a young student — a victim of date rape

Two of Theresa Rebeck's favorite lines from her upcoming production of O Beautiful reveal much about the play and perhaps even more about the playwright herself.

In a classroom discussion about the Founding Fathers, a young student — a victim of date rape who is now pregnant — has choice words for one, in particular. Her lines are funny and outrageous.

And in a far different scene — the climax of the play — a mother, mourning the suicide of her son and speaking before the town hall, exclaims, "At night I tell myself that we are all together, through time, the dead and the living. That we share creation with our ghosts."

O Beautiful is a play about Theresa Rebeck's America, written specifically for the University's professional theatre company, the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) and the Professional Theatre Training Program. 

10/27/2011
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