Playwright Lee Blessing

Actors Theatre of Indiana welcomes Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Blessing for a Nov. 13 reading of his new pandemic-era play, The Family Line, the second title in ATI’s 2021-22 Lab Series. Blessing, known for A Walk in the Woods, Cobb and Eleemosynary, keeps it intimate for his new work: Two characters, a grandfather and the grandson he doesn’t know, embark on a road trip after the COVID-related death of the boy’s mother.

Blessing told me via email, “I almost immediately knew the play would have only two characters, making it the sixth two-character full-length play I’ve written — the others being Great Falls, Riches, A Walk in the Woods, Going to St. Ives and The Winning Streak. Something about the form works extremely well for me. Gets me down to essentials, I suppose. Keeps the lines of conflict extremely clear. I loved keeping the characters in the car for the whole trip as well. I wanted them to be under stress throughout, just as everyone else was in that early pandemic time.”

Here’s how Actors Theatre of Indiana in Carmel, IN, bills The Family Line: “Finn’s mother has died suddenly from COVID. He’s a mixed-race 15-year-old who must now be transported to his estranged father. No one dares fly, so Finn’s white grandfather Jonah (whom he’s never met) is tasked with making the nonstop, cross-country drive. They spend 24 hours together, each getting to know a perfect stranger at the most imperfect time. Will they find common ground? Will they get there at all? Are they a family in name only, or something more?”

Film and TV star Richard Riehle plays Jonah in the Actors Theatre of Indiana reading of Lee Blessing’s “The Family Line.”

Veteran Hollywood character actor Richard Riehle (“Casino,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” TV’s “Grounded for Life”) plays Jonah. Carmel High School graduate Jake Letts plays Finn. Kevin Casey is the stage manager. Cynthia Collins reads stage directions.

Jane Unger, who directed ATI’s current area premiere of Lombardi and who previously staged my play Alabama Story for ATI, directs the Blessing reading, to be followed by a talkback between audience and playwright. (Unger previously worked with Blessing when she presented a 2010-11 season of his work at Profile Theatre Project in Portland, OR, where she was founding artistic director.)

Blessing’s acclaimed work includes A Walk in the Woods (a Tony Award nominee and Pulitzer finalist), Cobb, Fortinbras, Eleemosynary, Chesapeake, Going to St. Ives, Thief River, A Body of Water, among his almost 40 other full-length plays. He lives in Los Angeles where he curates the SkyLab writers group for Skylight Theatre Company. He is married to fellow playwright and TV writer/producer Melanie Marnich.

For tickets to the 2 PM matinee reading of The Family Line, at the Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts, click here.

I emailed a handful of questions to Lee Blessing, one of my playwriting heroes, and he kindly wrote me back.

What did you “see” first when conjuring the play? And what’s the standout theme that emerged?

Lee Blessing: The first “hook” for me in conceiving The Family Line was the idea of a long trip under stressful circumstances — a device I’d already used in my play Great Falls. For me the most important theme of the play is family. I try to present a number of facets of that concept in the play. What do we owe family members, even distant or (in this case) unknown ones. Why and what do we sacrifice in the name of family? How do we form/maintain a family as it continues down through what can be generations of misfortune? What if we don’t really want to be in a family, but find ourselves there anyway?

I love the idea of “journey” in your play’s premise. Families going to great lengths. Is there a literal journey happening in the play? That is, are we in a vehicle or stationary?

Lee Blessing: The driving trip that forms the structure of the play is a 24-hour, straight-through journey from the Florida Panhandle to the Upper Midwest. We never see them without the car. We almost never see them outside the car. We get very few reports on where they are specifically. They’re just driving.

Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky in the original Broadway production of “A Walk in the Woods” by Lee Blessing.

When it became clear that the COVID 19 pandemic was going to keep theaters shut down indefinitely, how did it affect your career as a playwright? That is, aside from productions being stalled or royalties not coming in, did it shut down your imagination, inspire new work, somehow alter your writing routine? How so?

Lee Blessing: COVID collapsed my life just as it has almost everyone else’s. Still I try to write a new play each year, no matter what sort of crap is flying around, and 2020, strange as it was, was no exception. I had a number of productions shelved as a result of COVID hitting, and I’m not sure any of them has been rescheduled. Clearly this did not change my writing schedule much. I expect theatre is coming back, if slowly, and when it does I’ll need to have a whole new batch of plays for theaters to reject.

What has been the development of The Family Line leading up to the Actors Theatre of Indiana reading?

Lee Blessing: The Family Line first had a three-day Zoom workshop through the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in May 2021. I’ve been doing a new play each spring with them for nearly a decade. The PWC connection represents the longest professional relationship I’ve had in theatre. Later, in August 2021 The Family Line was done in a live reading at the Durango PlayFest in Durango, CO.  That was in a three-sided tent with great ventilation for about a hundred people. I didn’t rewrite the script much after either experience. Like one or two other plays I’ve written, The Family Line seems to have come out pretty much complete in its initial version — a phenomenon as rare as it is pleasurable.

Jake Letts, a Carmel native and Ball State University graduate,  plays grandson Finn in “The Family Line.”

Do you write daily? Do you juggle multiple projects?

Lee Blessing: I think about writing every day. I write most days. In order to juggle multiple projects I would have to have multiple projects.

Final word of wisdom?

Lee Blessing: Plays have climaxes. That’s why we write them and why we watch them. Amazing how many playwrights today don’t think this is true.

The 2021-22 Actors Theatre of Indiana Lab Series began in September with Ethan Mathias’ Provenance and continues in 2022 with readings of the new musical Mr. Confidential, with book and lyrics by Samuel Garza Bernstein and music by David Snyder (2 PM Feb. 12) and Kenneth Jones’ three-character play Two Henrys (2 PM May 14), revised since its recent streaming reading by Third Avenue Playhouse in Wisconsin.

Learn more about the Lab Series reading series here. 

Actors Theatre of Indiana, the resident Equity theater in Carmel, IN, was co-founded by Cynthia Collins (associate artistic director), Judy Fitzgerald (associate artistic director) and Don Farrell (artistic director). Learn more here.