A motel off Interstate 80 in Iowa is the setting of Joshua Rollins’ dark comedy, Darlin’, getting its world premiere in Chicago March 7-April 13. A wife and mother named Clementine has taken flight and holes herself up in this middle-of-nowhere limbo, where she’s forced to interact with strangers — and face herself.
Clem’s “awakening,” as the West Virginia-bred, Chicago-trained playwright puts it, is at the center of the new play. Clementine, a woman with secrets, checks into the no-name motel. She has a wad of cash, no credits cards, a car with child-seats (but no trace of children) and a ringing cell phone that she doesn’t answer.
This raises the curiosity of “regulars with their own secrets — Smith the caretaker, Dee the cleaning lady, Troy the ex-quarterback, Kenny the drug dealer — who all want to know what she’s running from,” according to Step Up Productions, which is producing at The Athenaeum Theatre in The Windy City.
Rollins told me in an email, “This is a play about a young woman who wakes up one night and realizes the life she has isn’t the one she wants. Men decide this all the time — as we can see by the numbers of single mothers. But the extra pressure and expectations pressed on a woman to be motherly or want children is enormous. So that’s where I started.”
Step Up Productions’ mission includes giving a portion of its proceeds to groups related to issues addressed in their productions. (The not-for-profit House of the Good Shepherd, serving women and children affected by domestic violence, will benefit. Clem is not directly a victim of spousal abuse, but another character, Dee, is.)
Who exactly is Clementine? “I think Clem is middle class and is in a typical marriage and a typical parent,” Rollins observes. “What isn’t so typical is that she finally succumbs to her urge to run. I look at it as a sort of awakening for her. Awakening to the fact that this isn’t the life she ever wanted, but was always the life she was told she should want. While I don’t think what she does is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ I do think she’s, in a way, more open and honest and free than many people allow themselves to be.”
The cast of Darlin’ includes Step Up founder and artistic director Elizabeth Antonucci (Dee), Elizabeth Birnkrant (Clem), Jake Carr (Kenny), Robert Hardaway (Troy), Todd Michael Kiech (Smith), Bradford Lund (Jake), Annie Neal (Dee, March 28-30) and John Wehrman (Hank). Read more about the cast here.
The motel setting — a natural beehive of people — provides a pungent atmosphere for the seven-character play. “When I’m in a hotel in the middle of nowhere on my way to a production of my work or a workshop, I always notice the people in the hotel that seem like they’ve been there a little too long,” Rollins says. “It’s funny, you walk into your room and expect solace, but that’s rarely what you get. The people next door are fighting or having sex, someone starts up their truck at 3 AM to leave, someone else left the alarm clock on and it buzzes every 10 minutes. You can’t escape.”
The Darlin’ creative team includes director Ilesa Duncan; set designers Robert Groth & Jenniffer Thusing; costume designer Raquel Adorno; lighting designer Mike Durst; sound designer Joe Court; props designer Lisa Griebel; makeup designer Dorthea Walstrom; dramaturg Brandy Reichenberger; production manager Catherine Allen; and stage manager Shandee Vaughan.
Rollins’ play Concealed Carry — about a Colorado school shooting — was selected for the 2013 Seven Devils’ Playwriting Conference with ID Theatre in Idaho. His play A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes debuted in Chicago in 2011 with Pine Box Theater; it’s in development for production in New Orleans. Other works include American Rex, which premiered with Chicago Street Theatre and was a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and 25 Saints, which completed a run at The Greenhouse Theater in Chicago in 2013 and a run with Azeotrope Theatre in Seattle.
Rollins, 36, who lives in Boulder, CO, is also a stage, film and TV actor who has appeared with The Blue Man Group, Steppenwolf Theatre, The Gift Theatre, About Face, Commonwealth Shakespeare and the Huntington Theatre, among other places. His film acting credits include “Batman: The Dark Knight,” “Contagion,” “Living Hell,” “Killshot,” “Awake” and “The Lake House,” among others. He earned a master’s degree in Theatre Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a graduate of the School at Steppenwolf. Visit joshuarollinsplays.com.
I threw some questions at the playwright, and he answered by email in mid-February.
What impulse led to Darlin’? What are its seeds?
Joshua Rollins: My wife and many of her friends started having babies around the same time. Some of them suffered a great deal from the expectation of being a perfect mother. Also, my sister had a baby at a very young age and struggled for a long time with postpartum depression, which is where this play had its genesis. But this isn’t a play about postpartum depression.
…Talking to women who left their marriages or families was eye-opening. I think everyone in a marriage with kids has great days and days they want to get in the car and drive. What I didn’t expect was the added pressure on women. The expectation that they don’t run. That they can do it all.
Where did you grow up? What was your exposure to theatre as a kid? You began as an actor?
Joshua Rollins: I grew up in a small town called Buckhannon, WV — literally a three-stoplight town in the middle of nowhere. My exposure to theatre as a child was virtually non-existent. When I graduated high school, during my first semester of college [at West Virginia Wesleyan College], I was diagnosed with a pretty serious medical condition and had to have major surgery. Recovery meant long walks at all hours of the night. During one such walk, I passed the theatre building during auditions for No Exit. I had no idea how to act, but thought it would be fun to try. [I] graduated with BAs in English Lit and Dramatic Arts.
Then during a summer stock gig a few years later, I saw the PBS documentary, “Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself,” which was followed by the film version of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich slugging it out in True West. Chicago was calling to me.
What year did you move to Chicago? When were you working there?
Joshua Rollins: 2005. I was laid off from a corporate job in Boston and received a six-month severance package. I gave myself five months to make it as an actor before I returned to the corporate world. Month No. 4 I booked two Budweiser commercials. I worked as an actor from 2005-2012.
You were an actor and writer working in the milieu of classic Chicago storefront theatre. How has that world — intimate, ensemble-oriented — influenced your playwriting?
Joshua Rollins: It’s been everything. Really. Doing the School at Steppenwolf was a transformative experience. It also, through happy coincidence, introduced me to Audrey Francis, who was an instructor at the time and a Pine Box [Theater] company member. I thought someone needed to write a play that showcased her fierceness, which I tried to do with A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes. Many times, when I get stuck [on] a scene, I picture an actor I know and trust in the role, and it helps me get over the hurdle. You can always find people to do readings and workshops of new work, and Chicago has no shortage of talent. Many people I’ve worked with as an actor have been drafted into doing readings or workshops. But the great thing I found about Chicago is that it is a close community of artists that isn’t a closed community, which is rare. It’s usually one or the other.
Do you write for specific actors?
Joshua Rollins: Originally, I worked with Karen Aldridge on Darlin’. Since she’s off to Broadway [in Matilda], we lucked out in getting a great actress, Elizabeth Birnkrant to play [Clem] for the world premiere. Lucy in Girl was always Audrey Francis. But I also rewrite characters at times based on actors I hadn’t thought of. Josh Odor in 25 Saints was one of them. I originally pictured Tuck [a character in the play] as sort of a Puck [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. Josh auditioned and brought this gravity to the role I hadn’t considered. I love when actors surprise me.
You live in Chicago now?
Joshua Rollins: I do not. My film, theatre and television work was going well, but my wife and I always wanted to raise our kids in the mountains. After a television show I did in Chicago ended, and my play A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes landed me a writing agent, we decided the time was right and moved to Colorado. I still occasionally fly out to L.A. or New Mexico for film and television work, but am working mostly on plays, screenplays, and the selling of both.
Looking at your plays, or at least the synopses, the idea of “outsiders” seems like a common thread: the meth makers in Appalachia in 25 Saints, the denizens of a chicken-wing restaurant in Hot Sauce Jesus, the populace of the motel in Darlin’. What do you plays have in common, do you think?
Joshua Rollins: Well certainly that’s a theme I explore. I think one thing I’ve really tried to do, especially with American Rex and 25 Saints, is give a voice to the Appalachian people. Whenever people cover poverty, they usually work on urban poverty; not just in drama — in literature, in charity work, in education reform. While I think inner-city struggles are a huge concern, I often wonder who is speaking for the rural impoverished, people that are in situations just as dire. Just last month, we had a chemical spill in the state capital of West Virginia that rendered the drinking water unusable for over a month. No one cared. These are the people I grew up with, these are my people, and I have a feeling if they vanished one day, there might be a collective shrug from America.
Your plays have been set in both non-urban settings and in big cities. What is it that attracts you to the setting of Darlin’?
Joshua Rollins: Again, I think rural American gets the short end of the stick over and over again. If I read another play set in a high-rise Manhattan apartment, I’m going to scream. Are those stories interesting or valid? Of course. Do I care as much about those stories? No. I’m from a very poor, very rural, very secluded area. That interests me far more.
When you’re writing a play, generally, what comes first — a central character, an “event,” a conflict? Or does it vary?
Joshua Rollins: Usually an event. Almost always. I’ll hear something on the radio or witness something on the street and the “What If’s” start. Girl started with me almost hitting a kid on a bike. 25 Saints started with this image of two men beating another to death in the first two minutes and then letting the audience catch up.
When I first started, I self-censored so much: “God, I can’t write about that…what will people think?” Girl is basically about a man that leaves his wife and kids to go to a strip club and is then tempted into hiring a prostitute. I couldn’t have written about that a few years ago because it’s horrifying to think about. What if your sexual urges cause you to risk your entire life you’ve built? I have a real safety net in my wife, who challenges me to explore the things I may not want to give a voice to.
More often then not, I have the beginning and the end, then I have to figure out how to get from one to the other.
Is there a large-scale Joshua Rollins play lurking inside you that has 25 actors and multiple sets?
Joshua Rollins: There are many plays of many different types lurking under there. I’m usually drawn to the smaller cast size and more intimate plays, but that’s also a reality of producing world-premiere work of a relatively unknown playwright. “Oh, you have 30 characters and a trampoline? We only have a budget for four characters and a chair.” I love that [Sam] Shepard, who is known for plays over two hours, has started writing one-act, 80-minutes, in-and-out theatre. Some of my plays, especially 25 Saints, start at this breakneck speed and don’t let up. I love that kind of play. But yes, I have longer plays. Yes, I have more elaborate plays, but those, for the most part, aren’t of interest to the people that produce.
What playwrights do you follow and admire? Who has influenced you over the years?
Joshua Rollins: Shepard, obviously. The newer Irish guys, [Martin] McDonagh and [Conor] McPherson (my grandfather is right-off-the-boat Irish). [Edward] Albee was big for me growing up. I met Theresa Rebeck when I acted in one of her readings and am a big admirer of hers. I worked with Sarah Ruhl’s mother in a show at Timeline [Theatre Company], and read all of [Sarah’s] work. But I also admire the hell out of many of my friends and colleagues — Andrew Hinderaker gifted me with one of the lead roles in Suicide Inc and we did that play for what seems like eight months at The Gift. Tanya Saracho has this amazingly unique voice.
What’s your average day like? Do you split it between writing and auditioning/rehearsing as an actor? Do you have a day job?
Joshua Rollins: I haven’t had a day job for a while. I was very fortunate in Chicago to get the opportunities I did that allowed me to just be an actor. The great thing about being in films like “The Dark Knight” is that it’s always playing on television and the commercials I did keep coming back up. And the screenplay options help quite a bit, too. I’m teaching classes at University of Colorado, I pick up the occasional acting gig, and when I’m not making pancakes for my kids’ classes or learning how to braid my daughter’s hair, I write. I write and write and write. Every day. Even if it isn’t going well. Even if the scene is crap. Even if the idea is falling apart around me, I write.