The scandal of marrying out of your faith — Catholic girl loves Protestant boy! — is at the heart of a new charm-bomb comedy called Divinity Place, one of the recently added titles to the catalog of Steele Spring Stage Rights, the rising licensing agent/publisher. The characters and events created by playwright Greg Jones Ellis are close to his heart — the play is drawn from his own parents’ tension-kissed wedding in 1941 Philadelphia. The script boasts a bride committed to faith, a groom who goes rogue, an angry father-of-the-groom, an implacable priest, loyal if needy relatives, surprise entrances, a very pregnant pal and at least one exploding dress. And if you think the religious conflict within the play seems quaint by today’s standards, think again.
“At the risk of sounding too serious about what is, after all, a farce, many families still bicker over marital choices,” the Annapolis-based playwright told me. “I’ve seen people announce their plans to marry someone perfectly wonderful only to find that, because of ‘the fine print,’ as the would-be groom calls it in the play, someone in the family puts up barriers. ‘The fine print’ may be religion, race, gender, background, political views, whatever. And I’ve never seen these objections do anything constructive.”
Ellis added, “The play is intended to be a subtle reinforcement of ‘family’ as it is more broadly defined — whoever takes care of you when you need it most. They may be flawed, but if they have your best interests at heart, they’re family.”
The idea of challenging tradition, as the playwright’s Catholic mother, Jean, did when she married Ellis’ Presbyterian father Bud — “is probably also influenced by my own life,” Ellis explained. “My two brothers are adopted. I am in a very happy, very long-term same-sex marriage. There are those who, ahem, found these choices on the part of my parents and me to be hard to accept. I have to think that these ‘non-traditional’ aspects of my personal life have informed my view of love and family.”
I first encountered Divinity Place when it had a reading in Manhattan in the 1990s. Ellis revised it recently and it was picked up by StageRights.com in 2016. Within weeks, it had its first booking. Using 12 actors on one set, it seems ideal for stock, amateur and university troupes eager to cast from their large acting pools — with especially potent roles for young women.
Full disclosure: Ellis is my talented cousin, an actor and writer who helped inspire me to pursue a life in the theatre. I didn’t have to jump through hoops getting an interview with him about Divinity Place. (His late mom, Jean, was my godmother, for God’s sake!) Check out my Q&A below.
Here’s how StageRights.com bills Divinity Place: “God knows why Buddy and Jean should get married… God knows… but nobody else seems to. With only 12 hours to plan a shotgun wedding, Buddy and Jean must prove that love can overcome any obstacle. As they encounter exploding wedding dresses, tyrannical fathers, and one stickler of a priest, it’s a bumpy road to the altar for this love-sick couple. Set at the beginning of World War II, with the slapstick humor of classic Neil Simon, a younger generation strives to live life by a new set of standards while breaking all the rules in the process.”
Divinity Place is inspired by your own parents’ marriage. Is it a melding of many family stories that you absorbed over the years or is it mostly fiction?
Greg Jones Ellis: A basic part of the play’s conflict — that my dad’s father objected to the marriage — is all true. He refused to go to the wedding and forbade my grandmother from going. But she did sneak out of the house to wish them well, which happens in the play.
A lot of the details about the characters’ relationships made their way into the script. For example, the character of Jean, based on my mother, and the characters of her sister and her friends, were raised in a Catholic orphanage. This is true; a lot of the jokes and stories that the young women tell in the play about life in the “home,” [actually St. Vincent’s Home] as they called it, come straight from my mom’s mouth.
Who do you see as the main characters of what I perceive to be a richly ensemble-oriented play?
Greg Jones Ellis: The core of the plot is the love story between Buddy, who’s Protestant, and Jean, who’s Catholic. But I wanted to set it amongst the background of a close-knit group of friends and family (as they were in real-life) who were all deeply involved in each other’s lives.
One of the things a writer must do is to “play through” the script from each character’s point of view. So, even though Buddy and Jean are the romantic leads, I hope that each character has a moment where he or she reveals how love (or the absence of it) has shaped their individual lives. For example, Jean’s sister Marguerite, is the only one in the “crowd” of friends from the orphanage who is without a mate or mate-to-be. Her attempts to control the wedding are not out of malice so much as a desire to be a part of the event. Likewise, Jinx, the “outsider” who is engaged to Jean’s brother and shows up to the wedding in her own wedding dress (which unfortunately isn’t finished — and falls apart at very inopportune moments), wants the world to remember that she “got there first” in terms of being engaged. Even the priest (“Holy Joe”) who puts a major monkey wrench in the plans by insisting that Buddy sign a document he’s made up, is acting on conviction. He truly believes that he’s going above and beyond by even agreeing to marry a Catholic girl to a Protestant boy. In his own mind (and in 1942), he’s a progressive when it comes to love!
When did you first think this family history was a play? What was the “ah ha!” moment?
Greg Jones Ellis: Most creative writers have what I think of as a “second layer of consciousness” at all times — even when they’re asleep. They observe, they record and they store all the things around them, even if their primary consciousness is focused on tangible tasks at hand, like work or conversation or even sex. When they sit down to write, that secondary consciousness is allowed to take precedence. Whatever thoughts or images that have persisted over time in that secret repository is what probably needs to be written. This is a highly esoteric answer to a straightforward question. Mainly because I don’t think I had an “ah ha” moment that I recall! It really germinated over a very long time, but was clearly something that fought its way onto the page.
How much of the physical business did you invent for delicious comic effect? For example, was there an exploding dress?
Greg Jones Ellis: My playwriting professor in college would always ask us, “Why is this a play?” He stressed that straight storytelling isn’t playwriting. Plays have one special thing that no other narrative form has: real people performing it live in front of real people! Physical comedy is one of the most precious gifts of live theater. I just love physical comedy, so I took some hints from the real story and made them into opportunities for visual “gags.” One example: Ceil, the “mother hen” character, is based on my Aunt Clare, who was ferociously devoted to cleaning. That became a silent vignette that has Ceil rolling up rugs, scrubbing and generally scouring the living room in five minutes. I hope the actors who play Ceil will feel free to invent whatever business keeps the laughter going. My hope is that she gets applause every night!
And while the real “Jinx” didn’t have that much of a grudge against my mom’s wedding, she probably did feel a bit overshadowed. I turned that into the recurring bit where her pinned-up dress slowly falls apart, ultimately leaving her in her underwear in front of the priest. Her fiancé, Fixie, also has the opportunity to take advantage of the script’s invitation for him to be a total klutz, which is in total contrast to Buddy.
Here is one from real life: I have Buddy entering for the first time and immediately standing on his head. My dad did that. It was his special trick, and he could still manage it well into his seventies.
And of course, what’s a farce without a swinging kitchen door and a trayful of coffee cups? Yup, that’s in there too….
Is there a dramatic “ticking clock” to the story?
Greg Jones Ellis: In a way. This hearkens back to your question about comedic invention: many of my mom’s pals from that time were marrying and getting pregnant as soon as they could because of the war. In the play, Jean’s friend Caputo is nine months pregnant and — what else — goes into labor just as the wedding looks like it might happen. Talk about your ticking clocks…
An early version of the play set the action in 1941, as I recall. You changed the date to wartime for your current draft; that seems purposeful for you as a dramatist.
Greg Jones Ellis: I certainly wanted the play to have forward momentum: will the wedding take place, or will the combined pressures of Holy Joe’s insistence on a signature, Buddy’s father’s threats, etc. thwart the plans? This is also why, after the first drafts, I pushed the date of the wedding to 1942 (my parents married in 1941). There is the very real pressure on the young couple to marry before Buddy is drafted to serve in the war. As I said before, it’s not the main reason for the play’s suspense, but it just made it easier for audiences to quickly get the time frame and its implications.
Who was the storyteller or the keeper of the mythology in your family? Your mom? Aunts? That is, since women are very strong in the play I’m wondering if women were the historians of your clan and if they — rather than your father — passed these stories down.
Greg Jones Ellis: You’re absolutely right. My dad could tell a good story, but his background, as is Buddy’s in the play, is far more “standard issue.” He was raised in a working-class family, lived at home until he married, served in the war, started a family, etc. There’s a story there to be told about my dad, but the more vivid one for this play was my mother’s.
Also, my mother was half-Irish; there are a lot references to this in the play. It seems to me that those of us with Irish blood are more inclined to tell a good story. Think of the plays of Conor McPherson. Many of them are strings of long monologues.
Are all the characters in the play based on real people?
Greg Jones Ellis: All of the family members in the play are inspired by my own family. My grandfather (Buddy’s father in the play) was indeed tyrannical. His wife was indeed deferential to a fault. My mom was very much Jean. One thing that surprises audiences is Jean’s salty vocabulary. Well, my mom’s was…saltier. In early drafts of the play Jean’s language was much closer to the real Jean. However, as we did readings of the play I realized that reality is not always plausible — no one believed that young women swore before, well, before my generation. But real women in 1942 didn’t all talk like Claudette Colbert or Greer Garson onscreen. Nevertheless, I ultimately tempered Jean’s (and the other women’s) vocabulary, but I did leave in enough to indicate that people have always been people, particularly when they are among friends.
The non-family members are all at least inspired by real people. One of my favorites is Father Brendan, the young priest who has been instructing Buddy on Catholicism. Just as in the play, my dad said that most of the “instruction” turned out to be trading stories about the latest baseball games!
How does your mother’s past in an orphanage inform the play’s events?
Greg Jones Ellis: My mother’s father died in the flu epidemic of 1918 when she was a baby. Her mother died ten years later. Before she was sent to the “home,” she was farmed out to a distant relative, taken out of school and made their servant. This is all as the stock market is about to crash. When an aunt found out about my mom and her siblings (“Fixie” and “Marguerite” in the play), she paid for the girls to be raised in the orphanage and my uncle to live with relatives who would treat him like one of the family and not an unpaid servant.
This is why, in the play, the young women have such a bond. Many of the characters have similar backgrounds. In addition — and this comes right out of my mother’s mouth — they felt that the nuns who ran the orphanage were mostly “swell.” At the height of the Depression, these kids got a high school education, medical care, healthy food and a safe place to grow up.
Parents and parent figures — including “father” in the Catholic sense — are central to the play.
Greg Jones Ellis: The nature of parenthood is a theme that surfaces in the play. Both “fathers” — Buddy’s dad and the older priest, “Holy Joe” — are highly flawed in terms of what we now call “parenting skills.” The play, though, has many hints at what does make a good parent. Buddy’s mother, Mrs. Sinclair, risks her husband’s wrath by sneaking down to wish the couple well. She has one of my favorite speeches, where she recalls Jean’s late mother, who was a neighbor. In that speech, one senses that Jean’s mother and Mrs. Sinclair both shared a kindness of spirit.
Most vividly “parental” is the character of Ceil. Ceil, also parentless, is still a young woman, although not part of Jean’s “crowd.” While the prospects of marriage seem unlikely, she has assembled cousins and others in her house and made a family. She counsels them and literally shelters them, as any good parent would. I was crazy about the real-life Ceil, who was a surrogate grandmother even though she was only ten years older than my mother. She was the cookie-baking, birthday card-sending lady we all want in our lives!
Although the play has tension between Catholic and Protestant forces, it seems to advocate for finding your own faith within the parameters of existing faith. Is this what happened in your own family? Was there a humanist approach to faith in your family, or would you characterize your mom as a “strict Catholic”? Did your Presbyterian father go to mass, or to his own church?
Greg Jones Ellis: I wanted to bring out a part of American life, as typified by my dad, that I think rarely has been portrayed: what I call “Protestant lite.” My dad, as an adolescent, realized that while he called himself Christian, he had rarely gone to church. More importantly, he wanted to seek out what religion could mean in his life. As a result, he visited a lot of different churches. Buddy’s choice in the play, to associate with a Presbyterian church, is almost word for word what my Dad actually did:
“I listened to a great guy, Reverend Foster, talk all about…well, I don’t know — optimism, how God gives us all brains to think with, hearts to feel with, and bodies to take care of the two. Simple things. He got to me, that’s the only way I can explain it. I sometimes think I was lucky, skipping all the Bible stories and baptisms when I was too young to think for myself. Now, when I read anything, I can use that brain God gave us and think it through. And when I finally got baptized by Reverend Foster, it meant something.”
As my Dad got older, he stopped going to church. Ironically, so did my Mom, with her strict Catholic upbringing by the sisters. Neither, however, would ever have described themselves as having lost their faith. Instead, they, like many people, tried to live good lives and sought out their churches when they felt the need for comfort or celebration.
What’s the significance of the title, Divinity Place?
Greg Jones Ellis: It’s the actual street where my mom and dad lived as neighbors when they were engaged. It’s a small street in West Philadelphia with typical row houses. The fact that it has a certain thematic double-meaning made it a happy choice for the title. My grandfather lived in his house on Divinity Place until he died in the 1970s. I didn’t grow up in Philly, but we would visit my grandfather pretty often. What I remember about the house were the old-fashioned things: the push-button light switches, the coal furnace in the basement, the beautiful wood banister…I still have a beautiful art nouveau-style vase that he gave me when I was a kid. He was never much of a cuddly Grandpop, but he could show signs of softening. He even softened toward my mom over the years. She used to joke, “I started out as ‘that woman you live with’ and ended up as ‘Jean, Honey.’” This was progress!
Your parents are gone now. Did they read the play, or know about it? What was their response?
Greg Jones Ellis: Funny story. I hadn’t quite completed the final draft of the play, and I didn’t want to show it to my parents until I was happy with it. I wasn’t sure how they would react to my using that happiest of days as the basis for slapstick. One day, while having lunch with my parents, a well-intentioned friend who had read a draft, chirped, “I just feel I know you after reading Greg’s play!” Blank stares from my parents.
Deep blush from me. “Did I say something wrong?” my crestfallen friend asked. “No, it’s okay: mom, dad, I’ve written a play about the day you got married.” My mom said, “I hope it’s funny.” Eventually they read the play, and, to my huge relief, liked it a lot.
The play had a reading in New York in the 1990s. Prior to it being published in 2016 by StageRights.com, did it go through many changes? Any recent changes? Share?
Greg Jones Ellis: I’m very grateful to a few colleagues who shepherded the script through to its publication. Yes, the first reading was given at HBO as part of the New York Television Academy series. I was working in television then, and a wonderfully generous dynamo at the Academy named Ellen Muir arranged a professional reading sight unseen. She said, “You wrote a play, right?” I said yes. “Let’s put it on the schedule.” Just like that.
At that reading, I passed out questionnaires to the audience (much like TV focus groups do). I don’t recommend this, particularly for early drafts. Lots of stuff like “What if they were Jewish?” and “It was too comic. Try making it a drama…” But the experience of directing good actors and hearing the play out loud — that I highly recommend.
From there it had readings at universities in Connecticut and Colorado and at a theater in Delaware. My favorite was the Colorado one, directed by my friend Carol Petitmaire. She treated the reading with such care, rehearsing much more than is usual for a reading, and casting it really well. I had nothing to do with the rehearsal process, so I came to the public reading cold. I went backstage at intermission to compliment the actors and I wound up sprouting a few tears. I’m sure they thought I was nuts. But my tears were because they were bringing my characters to life so fully. I cry at anything I think is well played — I’ll bawl my eyes out at Noises Off if it’s a great production….
As opposed to the early questionnaires, that reading had a talkback, something I also have mixed feelings about. However, by this time the play was in firmer shape, and the comments and questions were honest and helpful. But the most important part was that the audience laughed in the right places, even when they were just hearing stage directions!
One more shout-out: the artistic director of a theater in Philadelphia read the play and was incredibly gracious. He called me out of the blue and spent a half hour giving me thoughtful and encouraging notes. The most practical became the last significant revision — “Cut the two smallest characters,” he said. “You’re smart to have one set, but most theaters can’t afford to hire actors for very small parts.” Such is the reality of the theater today, and so, I cut them. I think it actually improved the play, so I don’t mourn their loss.
The play has some great roles for young women. In your mind, what’s the ideal sort of theater company to present Divinity Place?
Greg Jones Ellis: Is it too ambitious to hope for an all-star Broadway production directed by a great comedy director like Jerry Zaks or Jack O’Brien? On a more realistic note, I have always felt that, owing to the juicy opportunities for young female actors, theater departments of colleges would be an obvious choice. As a theater major myself, I recall how many talented young women had to wait until the department chose something like Stage Door or The Trojan Women for them all to get a whack at a good role. This has a sassy romantic lead, a wisecracking sister, a heart-of-gold cousin, a super-pregnant gal and her deadpan pal, a nervous mother, and, of course, a jealous sister-in-law with an exploding wedding dress! And the men’s roles are pretty meaty too, in my humble opinion.
Where will it have its first licensed production? Will you be there?
Greg Jones Ellis: It’s scheduled for a full production at the North Street Playhouse in Onancock, Virginia, in April. This is a theater I’ve worked with for ten years, and I’m especially excited to see some of my friends and colleagues will bring my characters to life. I will drop in on rehearsals if the director, Terry Bliss, wants me to. I don’t plan to be a “hoverer,” though. One of the tests of a good script, I think, is that good creative people should be able get what they need from the printed page.
What else are you working on?
Greg Jones Ellis: I have just gotten word that my most recent script will likely have a professional reading at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC as part of their annual “Page to Stage” reading series this summer. It’s called All Save One. The play is also a period piece, but it’s a darker comedy/drama, a departure from the light comedy of Divinity Place. It takes place in Hollywood 1950. The characters are all in danger of being blackmailed by an unseen young opportunist. He, who has no talent besides evil, can ruin each of them by revealing what, in 1950, spelled the death of careers, or even prison. You can probably guess that the secrets involve youthful dalliances with Communism, sham marriages and closeted celebrities. Oh! There’s a priest in this one, too, but a much more sympathetic one than “Holy Joe.”
As I say this, I also realize it has more in common with Divinity Place. Both are about intolerance, and both, I hope, remind us that, however quaint the details of the periods may seem in 2017, the private lives of good people are always vulnerable to the prejudices of others. Attention: interested theater companies — this one has one set, five characters!
Check out the catalog of StageRights.com, which also licenses the satiric musical revue Naughty/Nice by Kenneth Jones and Gerald Stockstill.