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Stressing over bills? Write a play.

Darragh Kennan and Emily Chisholm in "Bethany," now playing at ACT Theatre Credit: Photo: Chris Bennion

You'll see people start to change too. Fighting to survive. It doesn't bring out the best in a person.
– from
Bethany by Laura Marks

It’s the stuff that keeps us up awake at night: stressing out over money.

The worry thwacked playwright Laura Marks in the gut. So she corralled her stress and as the economic recession roiled thousands across the country, she wrote a play.

The result, Bethany, focuses on the trials of Crystal, a suburban mom who’s homeless and ends up squatting in a house, among other things, in order to survive and reunite with her young daughter. In that house, Crystal confronts her potential future: homeless and crazed, like a paranoid ranter named Gary.

I spoke to the New York City-based (and intensely busy) playwright on the phone and via email about Bethany, which plays through Sunday at ACT.

Is it too simplistic to call this a recession play?

No, I think it’s fine to call it that. It’s set in early 2009, which is exactly when I wrote it, and it’s very much about that particular time.

And what made you choose this as a topic?

I was laid off myself in early 2009. (Her corporate real estate firm was downsizing). I was a little freaked out. My (actor) husband was also out of work at the time. His show (Hairspray) on Broadway had closed. And we have two small children.

Even though we were telling ourselves, 'It's fine,' it was a bit of a scary time. It was my worst fear: Not being able to support my kids. I did do a lot of research on the subject, talking to social workers, and Child Protective Services in different states. I wanted to get the broad picture.

So there were a few parallels between you and your protagonist?

Well, I had been an associate and I wore a suit to work everyday. (In the play, Crystal wears a suit as a car salesperson). But the similarities end there.

Certainly my situation wasn’t as extreme as Crystal’s. I had a very mild version of what many people in the country were experiencing.

At the time I was reading the news like everyone else. I think it was two things that inspired me. I read an op ed by Barbara Ehrenreich: The power of negative thinking. I just love her work so much. She really drew a connection between the financial collapse and “The Secret” and that whole Law of Attraction genre. That whole idea  that you can make things happen if you visualize it. And how dangerous that was.

I’m into positive thinking, but when you start looking at those texts — I am, I am, I am — the thing that really stuck out at me is that it’s so wrong. The selfishness and the materialism. (One of the play’s characters is a motivational speaker-potential luxury car buyer who regards Crystal as prey).

And the second thing you read that inspired you?

I read a story about people squatting in foreclosed houses. I thought, Wow. That would be provocative in a play.

The play is not in a specific city or state. Why?

"The play is not a docudrama. It’s not meant to be, “This is a slice of life in Stockton, California” or wherever. To me it’s more chilling if you think, “This could happen anywhere, if things got a little bit worse.” And frankly I wanted the artistic freedom to go somewhere extreme and maybe even a little bit surreal. That seemed like the best way to distill what I was feeling, and maybe what the whole country was feeling.

Why make the protagonist a car salesperson? 

I wanted her to be someone who worked on commission because that’s so volatile—you can have an amazing month and then make nothing the next month—and so vulnerable in a bad economy. And there’s something so iconically American about a car. Most of us spend so much of our lives in those little metal and plastic boxes. When I was writing the play, Saturn hadn’t gone under yet but it was definitely drowning. It just felt like the perfect place to put Crystal. Remember Saturn in the 90’s? They were so proud of being “a different kind of company.” They just burst onto the scene and did so well for a long time, until they didn’t.  Kind of like Crystal.

You bought a Saturn, you bought a Saturn, Put our service to the test,
You bought a Saturn, you bought a Saturn, Saturn owners are the best.

from Bethany by Laura Marks

In the play every time someone sells a car, the entire sales staff sings a celebratory song. Is it real?

They always used to sing you a song when you bought a Saturn. But the song in the play is a little different. I was afraid Saturn would sue me if I used the real song. Then again, can a defunct company sue you?

Do you think when you’re in survival mode, when you’re desperate, that you can remain moral and ethical?

That’s the question the play is kind of dealing with. And I don’t have an answer. I don’t know.

(If you go: Bethany, ACT Theatre, Through May 4. ($20-$51). There will be a post-play discussion on May 4.)

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