I just read a rueful, charming, tough new play called Off Peak, about former lovers meeting on a train, and I knew immediately that I wanted to throw some questions at playwright Brenda Withers. I love how the play spools out in real time, asking us to lean into the details that are revealed about things past — and the motivation behind what, at first, seems like a chance encounter.
What’s the elevator pitch for the play? Withers told me, “Off Peak is about Sarita and Martin, a musician and a writer who had a passionate, tumultuous relationship while pursuing their dreams in New York City. We meet them many years after their breakup and discover both have veered on to more practical paths. We also learn that their perspectives on their shared past are pretty different, and when they are stuck together on an ill-fated commuter train, they find a way to parse through their mixed memories.”
Sharing my passion for this new play is also a chance to salute Hudson Stage Company, which commissioned the script as a vehicle for Hudson Valley stars Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhoads, married performers known for their work at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and beyond.
Founded in 1999 by Denise Bessette, Dan Foster and Olivia Sklar, Hudson Stage Company — the Equity company in residence at Whippoorwill Hall Theatre in Armonk, NY — is closing up shop after this production, which runs April 22-May 7. The pandemic, economics, dwindling arts coverage in Westchester County and life changes informed the decision.
I’ll always be grateful that HSC gave me a developmental reading of my three-character play Two Henrys, which was among dozens of works seen in staged reading form there. The mainstage productions (36 in all!) were always beautifully produced with the best New York talent. I’m hoping the HSC website will remain “live” in the future as a record of its rich history. The theatergoers of Westchester County are lucky to have been in the company of the artists and producers associated with HSC.
Here’s how HSC bills Off Peak: “When two old flames run into each other on the evening commute, different views of the same past threaten to derail their connection. A delightful new play about forgiving, forgetting, and the healing power of a good delay.”
Jess Chayes directs. Doug Ballard is also in the cast. The production team includes set designer Sasha Schwartz, lighting designer Paul Vaillancourt, costume designer Leslie Bernstein, sound designer Tojo Rasedoara, production stage manager Ann Barkin, production manager John Leyden. The producers are co-artistic directors Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar.
Here’s my chat with Brenda Withers. Learn more about her at her website.
I’m always curious about where ideas come from — or how they present themselves to playwrights. What was the first glimmer you had for Off Peak? Did you see a character? A place? A conflict? And was that first glimmer prompted by a commission — that is, you knew you were writing for Hudson Stage Company, so did you plan to set this in the Hudson Valley?
Brenda Withers: Most of my plays grow out of questions I can’t answer. Around the time Off Peak came to life, I’d been thinking a lot about our country’s call for apologies, and the equally ubiquitous reluctance to accept them. The commission (from a company whose aesthetic I knew and loved) helped me wrangle that impulse into a tangible plot. I’ve performed in two Hudson Stage productions and wrote a small Zoom piece for them during the pandemic, so I felt pretty familiar with their audience — I had an immediate instinct in terms of the vibe and characters I wanted to offer them. For me, theater is a service industry, a field that can change (or open) minds, and I try to give audiences a way in — either with humor or a familiar landscape or voice. Tapping the Metro North commuter vein was meant as an invitation — plus, I really love trains.
Off Peak presents us with two middle-aged passengers on a commuter train, and their past relationship unspools in real time. There is a powerful sense of people reacting in the moment — it never feels schematic or manufactured. When writing this play, did you meticulously plot out how their conversation would go or did you do “raw writing” and let them take you places?
Brenda Withers: Such a great question! I had a very vague sense of where this play was going when it started — I really let their conversation lead the way, and I was very often surprised by where things wound up. Little details about their jobs or their home lives would pop out and create a skeleton to fill in more thoughtfully. It was a long, winding, mostly delightful road.
Was the process of writing this different than the process for your others plays?
Brenda Withers: It was fast. I pride myself on meeting tough deadlines, but this project happened to come on the heels of another, so I really only had about a month to get the first draft in shape. Ultimately that crunch was a gift — I wasn’t tempted to multitask or get distracted. I’m lucky I had the chance to clear my calendar and hunker down — it’s what I always thought writing would be like, just me and a window for most of the day, followed by endless conversations about whether a joke was working with my — impossibly patient and intuitive — boyfriend.
How is Off Peak different from or similar to another play of yours?
Brenda Withers: A lot of my plays are headier and weirder than this one. I consciously challenged myself to write something vulnerable and straightforward here, partly because I knew I’d be working with actors and a director capable of real depth, and partly to see if I still had it in me. I’d just finished producing and performing in my piece The Dings Dongs, a surreal morality play about private property, and while I loved the style and wordplay of a sinister comedy, I wanted to dig into a different world next. I love the constant novelty of a life in the theater. I think a lot of my plays do center on similar themes — justice and its bizarro cousin forgiveness, chief amongst them.
This play is a two-person, one-set experience. How aware of the economic reality of producing are you when you write? That is, are your other plays small-cast, and is there a 18-person Brenda Withers play you are dying to write?
Brenda Withers: I’ve tended toward writing small-cast plays, probably because I help run a theater and I can’t outrun the practical lessons that place has taught me. I’ve written a few cast-of-thousands fantasias — an adaptation of UBU a few years back and a faux-Chekhovian 10-character romp called The Kritik. Both have some passionate fans, but it’s been so hard to find theaters willing to take them on. I grew up doing Shakespeare and musical comedies, so I’ll always have a secret hankering for big ensemble pieces where a whole world of people get to shine.
I was excited that Off-Peak unpacks issues of a past relationship but does it without a mountain of bitterness — or any sense of victimhood — from the woman who was dumped years ago. And the man who dumped her is swollen with guilt, going so far as to attempt monetary reparations. It subverted my expectations. Making amends is an idea that is strong in the substance recovery community. And in religion. I also wonder if Martin’s reachout to Sarita is informed by the #metoo movement: Does he see the world through a different cultural lens than he might have, say, 15 years ago?
Brenda Withers: I don’t know if deep down Martin really sees things the way he feels he should — cultural conditioning is deep and lasting and not always without merit. But he’s trying hard to meet the moment. I’m a natural skeptic, and see hypocrisy in every prescribed solution to social ills — it’s hard for me to believe that purity tests and performative virtue really solve much. I respect open minds and hearts. I grew up Catholic and relate strongly to the ideal of reconciliation.
The character of Martin is also informed by male narcissism, middle age and mortality, right?
Brenda Withers: For sure. I personally find it hard to believe we are not always talking — blatantly — about mortality, so I take comfort in tucking it into plays where I can.
Do your own past relationships inform Off Peak? How so?
Brenda Withers: Haha, probably! I try to maintain good relations with people who have meant a lot to me, whether we’re still able to be in each other’s daily lives or not. I come from a long line of apologizers and an equally long line of forgivers.
For this world premiere, did you write specifically for the talent of Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhoads? Have you worked with them before?
Brenda Withers: I really only knew Kurt and Nance as heroes. I’d seen them perform: Nance even did a two-theater run of an adaptation of Cyrano I co-wrote. I have always been a little star-struck by them — they’re beloved on and off stage. From the very first read-through they were so wonderful in these roles — nuanced and funny and somehow able to immediately speak my language. They are a gift to this play.
What’s the most powerful idea or feeling that emanates from the play, for you at this moment? This may change from day to day, right? I always balk when people tell me my plays “have to be about one thing.” You?
Brenda Withers: You are making my day! I concur heartily with your balk. Today the play’s most powerful idea for me is that there is value in hearing each other out. Sarita and Martin are saved by this broken down train — they’re forced to pause, to give each other time and space to say what they mean, and what they meant to each other. Without that break in routine, they’d have left just as wounded as they were. I think it’s worth taking the time to get to the bottom of an opposing viewpoint — if we get the chance to talk to someone we think is wrong, we should take it.
You also happen to be a dynamite actress. You were brilliant in Hartford Stage’s Abundance, directed by Jenn Thompson almost a decade ago. How does acting inform your playwriting?
Brenda Withers: That’s such a nice thing to say, thank you. I loved every second of Abundance and learned so much from that team. Having the chance to work on great scripts, to feel those words in my mouth for months at a time, has been a tremendous education. I’m also always aware of making sure every role in my plays feels worth playing. I’ve done my share of second- or third-lead parts, foils with no fun or fire, and I try hard not to put anyone else in that situation.
Can you share a little bit of the first time you put pen to paper to write a play?
Brenda Withers: I started writing in college, when I was mostly focused on acting, but wanted to do some late night projects for fun. I wrote short plays with my younger brother and other classmates, and this led to me getting more serious about making my own work and opportunities — my first full length piece was a wild, movement-heavy bio of Amelia Earhart. I think, like acting, writing was something I saw people I admired doing — my older brother, some close friends — and I thought it might be a game I’d be good at.
Are you still an actress? Plugs, please.
Brenda Withers: Yes! I’m spending this summer at the Guthrie Theatre performing in Kate Hamill’s new adaptation of Emma. Meredith McDonough, one of my favorite directors and humans, is directing and I can’t wait to work at that theater — we were in the first week of rehearsals when the pandemic shut things down, and I’m very eager to reunite with the cast.
When you write, are you writing vehicles for yourself? Have you? Do you want to play Sarita one day?
Brenda Withers: Oh, shamelessly. I started out writing mostly for myself and my friends… and now I still write mostly for myself and my friends. For the past ten years I’ve helped run a small, wonderful theater on Cape Cod, the Harbor Stage Company. We’re a tight ensemble — two couples run the whole ship and we all do everything: write, act, direct, mop. It’s my home, my lab, my inspiration. It’s a team of people who fully support each other’s risks. We don’t make a ton of money, and no one’s ever really heard of us, but we’ve cultivated a wonderful audience that’s hungry for original work. I’m proud of the plays we do and the way we do them.
Where did you grow up, and were you exposed to plays and theater as a kid? Did your parents nurture a love of the arts?
Brenda Withers: I grew up on Long Island, with two incredible creative parents. My dad is an artist and teacher, my mom was a chemist who was always singing in a choir or taking us to plays. I was also lucky to have a high school teacher who made us do Shakespeare, and get comfortable with challenging text.
Can you share where you have studied as an actress or playwright? How does your theater training inform your playwriting?
Brenda Withers: I was a drama major at Dartmouth College. We had a small department led by a few inspiring professors and a student body with a very DIY vibe. We learned by doing, an ethos which has continued to serve me well.
Brenda Withers: After the Guthrie I’m headed back to the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, MA for our tenth anniversary season. In May, a new play of mine, Westminster, is being read as part of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ new play series, and I’ll get to Zoom in for that. And then I return to pounding the imaginary pavement.