WASHINGTON — There will be an entirely new character on stage — an acrobatic inner demon — who wasn’t in the highly acclaimed original novel when Mary Eberstadt’s The Loser Letters has its world premiere at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theater on Sept. 29.
Director and playwright Jeffrey Fiske, speaking at the Kirkpatrick Society, a prestigious group of women writers in Washington, which was founded by Eberstadt, explained why he added the new character.
“When Mary asked me to adapt the script, I asked myself, ‘How are we going to do this? The book is 32 letters,’” said Fiske. Brilliant letters, he realized, but the theater requires on-stage movement.
Fiske had previously adapted C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters into a play that won rave reviews from the secular and religious press alike. But Screwtape features a series of letters from the title character to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood.
Eberstadt’s novel, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism, consists of open letters from A.F. Christian, a young woman who is in an institution that is not identified until the end of the play, who is offering heartfelt advice for New Atheism leaders on how to improve their movement.
In her “Loser Letters,” the troubled young woman designates atheists as “Brights,” God as “Loser” and believers as “Dulls” at the beginning of the play. Her struggles, leading to a dramatically different understanding of the world and ultimately her conversion, unfold through her letters, which are sent from the mysterious institution.
Writing and posting letters, Fiske surmised, works in a novel, but perhaps not on stage. Fiske solved the problem of a lack of dramatic movement by creating the shadow, who is on stage throughout the performance and is played by Olympic and world-champion gymnast Chellsie Memmel, who is making her stage debut with The Loser Letters.
“When you adapt a novel,” Fiske explained, “it is not a matter of editing or revising it down to a play. It is finding the play within the novel.”
“In a play of ideas, part of what you try to do is to make this as active on stage as possible,” said Fiske. “The shadow can be described as A.F.’s inner demon. The shadow tries to lead A.F. in certain directions and prevent her from going in other directions and is ready to attack her if she goes too far in what the shadow considers the wrong direction.”
“A.F. never sees the shadow until the end of the final letter,” Fiske said. The shadow says nothing and is purely visual, but the shadow responds to what A.F. is saying. Since the shadow is so important, I decided to go big with it.” Hence a world-famous gymnast in the role.
He joked, “I also just really wanted to work with somebody who can fly, and Chellsie can do that.”
Since the shadow must convey everything through physical motions, Fiske called upon Irina Tsikurishvili of Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia, to choreograph the role. Synetic Theater’s wordless productions tell classical stories through dance and motion.
The alliance signals a focus on theatrical excellence, as Synetic has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award 116 times and has won 27 times, giving it Washington’s top theatrical award more times than any other theater group in the nation’s capital.
In addition to producing plays for its own stage, Synetic puts on plays at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and joined with the Shakespeare Theater Company to put on a wordless Antony and Cleopatra at the STC’s Lansburgh Theatre.
A.F. Christian is played by Madeleine Murphy, a recent College of William and Mary graduate who appeared in William and Mary productions of Avenue Q (2015), La Cage aux Folles (2013), Dancing at Lughnasa (2013), Merry Wives of Windsor (2013) and Pippin (2012). Mandy Rivera, a voice-over artist, will portray the institute director. The costume designer is Emily deAngelis, costume designer for the Richmond Ballet. Christopher White, a prominent Catholic writer, is the production’s managing director.
“One of the reasons I wanted to cast Madeleine for this role,” said Fiske, “is that she has a cheerful on-stage persona and is charismatic. When you have a play like this — that can get into a lot of dark issues — it can become very dark for the audience very quickly.”
Eberstadt and Fiske agreed from the start that the play was to be for a wide audience and not just a religious one. That meant the focus had to be, as Fiske put it, on how to make it “theatrically interesting for 90 minutes, not only insightful and invigorating, but fun.”
While the play has a Christian point of view, it also has to be successful theater. Fiske noted that this tradition goes all the way back to Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare had a Christian point of view,” Fiske said. “Measure for Measure takes its title from the Sermon on the Mount. Shakespeare has Christian references in every one of his plays. So this is a Christian point of view — but that is not what a play is. A play is actions. A.F. in action is trying to improve the New Atheism, which she very much believes in. But if you play the message, you’ll lose the story.”
Eberstadt did talk about the need for more works of art with a Christian perspective. Our culture is not as hospitable to such art as it was in the past.
“If Flannery O’Connor were writing today,” Eberstadt asked, “would she get into an arts colony? Would she have a publisher? Would she win awards? Would the best magazines be putting out her short stories? I think that the odds are no, but that it wouldn’t have anything to do with her art and everything to do with her uncompromising religious expression. We need a counter-establishment.”
Meanwhile, Fiske is excited that The Loser Letters is making its debut in Washington, which he regards, based on his experience with The Screwtape Letters, which played to full houses at the Lansburgh, is a theater town that likes the theater of ideas.
“We wanted to tell a story on its own terms,” he said, “for a secular or religious audience, for any audience.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.