"I started out with this idea of people who live in glass houses. . ." Thomas Babe, the playwright, was discussing his latest work, a piece he's been commissioned to write for South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. ". . .so I'm writing about a family that literally lives in a glass house. It's a see-through examination, you might say, of a family undergoing a rather chaotic time."
Babe's commission was one of three announced this week by SCR as a result of $100,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Bank Foundation. The other two went to Amlin Gray and Eric Overmyer. Both, like Rabe, are based in the New York City area and are well established on the big city and regional circuits.
Although officials would not divulge the amounts of the commissions, they indicated that the range was $4,000 to $10,000. This will be the first time Babe has worked with SCR.
"I'm working on a first draft to be in by the end of January," the 46-year-old playwright said from his home in Darien, Conn. "I'm pretty excited about the whole project, especially because I've heard nothing but great things about South Coast Rep as a first-class company."
Babe noted that the stock crisis has given his as yet untitled play a timeliness he hadn't anticipated.
"It's about a man, who's a little shady, and who goes broke in the stock market. Tragically so, that is very topical, isn't it? He's killed, and it becomes a lot about who did him in.
"My themes are quite serious, but what I like to do is to treat them with humor and a great deal of irony," continued Babe, who has had eight plays staged by Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York. One, also performed at the Solari Theatre in Los Angeles, was "Fathers and Sons," a generation-gap saga in which one character was Wild Bill Hickok. "Families are are a special fascination of mine: the relations between children and parents, the bloody kind and the funny ones," said Babe.
Babe began his association with the Public Theatre in 1975 with his first play, "Kid Champion," about a rock star. He has studied at Harvard and Cambridge and holds a Yale law degree and, in the early '70s, did some writing for "Ryan's Hope," the TV soap opera. He has directed several works in New York, including Keith Reddin's "Life and Limb" and Neal Bell's "Voices in Hell."
Gray won an Obie Award, given for outstanding off-Broadway plays, for his "How I Got That Story." His other works include "Kingdom Come" and "The Fantod." Overmyer, a former writer for NBC-TV's "St. Elsewhere" is best known for "On the Verge," which has been widely staged nationally (it was at the Mark Taper Forum's Taper Too in Los Angeles).
SCR already has eight other prominent young American playwrights working on commissioned plays: Philip Kan Gotanda, Richard Greenberg, Allan Havis, Henry David Hwang, Howard Korder, John Quincy Long, Ellen McLaughlin and Craig Lucas. Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss," in development for two years, will premiere Jan. 15 at SCR's Mainstage in Costa Mesa. Commissioned works by Neal Bell and Romulus Linney already have been staged.
Jerry Patch, the SCR dramaturge, says it isn't just the money that makes the commission program valuable to playwrights. "It's also the creative environment," he said. "We have to provide the spiritual, as well as material, support. We want to be part of the creative process first-hand with the writer."
Babe called the commission "a splendid opportunity and a generous offer, a real living wage. It's such a rarity for playwrights like myself to get this kind of sabbatical, to be given the (fiscal) breathing space to create."