“I feel like the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face: just happy to be here,” says playwright David Wright, who authored Ruthie. The Western North Carolina-based production sees its world premiere this week at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre.
Wright lives in Burlington, N.C., where he manages the Paramount Theater and serves as artistic director for the Paramount Acting Company, but he has strong ties to the mountains. For three years during the late 1980s, he lived in Asheville while working for public-radio station WCQS. During that time, a friend dared him to audition for a role in an Asheville Community Theatre production.
“It changed my life,” Wright says. “I quit a 29-year radio career and never looked back.”
So, when he was ready to place the characters in his post-World War II play, WNC just seemed right. So did submitting Ruthie to SART’s annual playwrights’ conference, ScriptWorks (which, in the future, will be called ScriptFest).
According to SART’s managing director, Rob Miller, the program draws between 100 and 200 unproduced scripts each year from writers nationwide, and sometimes overseas as well. Of those submissions, four to six finalists are named.
“We invite these authors to put their scripts on stage in a reader’s theater,” Miller says. Though the plays are performed without sets and the actors read off the page, the playwrights are afforded a rare opportunity to hear their work performed professionally. Following the readings, SART selects a winning play to be performed during the upcoming season.
Ruthie was 2007’s champion.
But even though Wright’s opus trounced the competition, its success wasn’t an easy one. The author says he “hit a wall” with the play’s second scene and wasn’t able to complete the work for years. The turning point came at a family Christmas celebration a few years ago when he was struck with the inspiration to base the play’s main character on his own sister, who had lost her husband, a Naval officer, in the 1970s. “After a five-year gestational period, it took four days to complete the draft,” Wright notes.
Ruthie is inspired by playwright Neil Simon (who adapted biblical cautionary tale the book of Job into the comedy God’s Favorite) and the Bible’s book of Ruth, though it’s by no means a simple retelling of the Scriptures.
For starters, Ruthie takes place in Asheville, post-World War II, rather than in Israel, circa 500 B.C. Wright’s Ruthie is the recently widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi, a widow herself, living in Charleston, S.C. The two women find themselves without means and so accept an offer to relocate to Asheville, where they’re promised employment at a successful laundry. It’s there that Ruthie meets the rakish Junior and good guy Bo—Wright’s answer to biblical-leading man Boaz.
“Every character, in one way or another, has suffered a loss,” the author says. But that doesn’t mean this is strictly a hard-luck tale. Wright (a fan of Southern humor and known for his one-man show about the late comedian Dave Gardner) is calling this piece a “dramedy” (the pop-culture version of the well-thumbed tragic comedy). As such, he’s studded Ruthie with humor.
“There are parallels to the Ruth story, such as the women of Bethlehem,” he says of the play’s chorus feature. In Ruthie, these oracles are embodied by mountain-women duo Thelma and Alma, based on Wright’s feisty grandmother and her sister, who were “always going at it.”
“I drew from people I knew, and my own experiences,” he explains. “I hope that people will like that, and that people of the WNC area will see it as a tribute.”
And it is that, but Ruthie is also Wright’s own vision coming full circle. From his humble start, dared into community theater, to his triumphant return to the mountains with an award-winning script and a world-premiere production, David Wright has earned his “mole on Cindy Crawford’s face” moment.
what: World premiere production of Ruthie, winning play of SART’s 2007 ScriptWorks festival.
where: Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill
when: Wednesday, July 30, through Sunday, Aug. 3. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday (adults, $25; children, $10. www.sartheatre.com or 689-1272).