On Oct. 3 and 4, Ubu’s Other Shoe—a series of staged readings at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre—will present Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, directed by Kerry Mayling and starring Patty Thayer and Tony Costa.
At the play’s center is Professor Laurie Jameson, a staunch feminist and academic superstar at a New England college. Jameson is a tireless crusader against all things sexist, racist, and patriarchal. When third generation legacy Woodson Bull III, or Third, as he prefers to be called, turns in an excellent essay about King Lear, she insists it must be plagiarism. Third, played by Costa, is an entitled, right-leaning, straight white wrestler who couldn’t possibly possess the sensitivity and intelligence required to produce such a work, she thinks. He becomes her perfect nemesis and thus, she sets out to punish him.
Director Kerry Mayling was drawn to the play precisely because of the characters’ similarities to Shakespeare’s famous play. “I really loved the parallels … that fact that King Lear made foolish choices based on his own insecurities and need for control just as Third’s main character, Laurie, is fighting some of those battles within her own professional and personal life.”
Wasserstein, who won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles in 1989 was, if not always highly reviewed, a Broadway favorite. Sadly, Third was Wasserstein’s final play before her death from cancer in 2006. Mayling described her rich legacy: “Wendy Wasserstein's plays focus on feminism and family; it's great for actors to have a chance to play these roles and really be able to dig deep emotionally and relate to her characters.”
“What I also like about this play,” Mayling continued, “is that Ms. Wasserstein uses themes from Lear to depict what women have to deal with in everyday life, especially in mid-life … a Mother whose daughter is about to 'fly the nest' … a Father with dementia, dealing with menopause … It really hits home the amount of stress that, not just women, but people in general have to deal with.”
Thayer, playing Laurie, points out that despite the play’s solemn themes, Wasserstein manages to bring the laughs. “[It] sounds like some dry, serious drama, but her writing is so funny. Her characters are so well drawn, her dialogue is very clever and the situations can be so farcical, yet real.”
Third plays Oct. 3 and 4 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7-$10; visit slolittletheatre.org.
Ed. note: A Q&A with director Kerry Mayling and lead actor Patty Thayer of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third yielded far more insight and information than could be used in this week’s Artifacts column. Below is the full text of this exchange, which took place via email with intern Victoria Dale.
NEW TIMES I would be interested in knowing what drew you to this work, maybe how it speaks to you personally.
KERRY MAYLING I saw this play in 2006 and I really loved the parallels between the characters in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the characters in Third. That fact that King Lear made foolish choices based on his own insecurities and need for control just as Third’s main character, Laurie, is fighting some of those battles within her own professional and personal life.
NT Have you done other Wasserstein plays?
KM This is my first time directing a Wendy Wasserstein play.
PATTY THAYER And this is my first time performing in one, but I loved The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig.
NT Third was sadly Wendy Wasserstein's last play; what effect do you feel her work has had on expanding the nature of roles for women in the theatre?
PT Wendy Wasserstein wrote plays about strong, intelligent, independent women struggling against traditional roles and ideas. That sounds like some dry, serious drama, but her writing is so funny. Her characters are so well drawn, her dialogue is very clever and the situations can be so farcical, yet real. It makes for a very enjoyable performance that leaves you with a message you won’t forget.
KM Wendy Wasserstein's plays focus on feminism and family; it's great for actors to have a chance to play these roles and really be able to dig deep emotionally and relate to her characters. As far as her own personal life, she died of cancer [in 2006] and was tying up a few loose ends before she died. I think at the end of the play you see some of that as well; and how things are resolved.
NT Ostensibly this play is about a student’s plagiarism and the college professor who accuses him, but do you feel it has more to say about a woman perhaps questioning her own rigid belief system? Or having her idealism challenged?
PT I think it has to do with learning how to bend. Discovering that sometimes things don’t come down to right or left, blue states or red states, Republicans or Democrats. People are a lot more complicated than that. And yes, there’s also a lot of politics in this play, which is set in 2002-2003, just as the war in Iraq was launching. But it may not play out as many people might think it will.
KM Yes. I think the play is a lot about how we can be rigid in our beliefs, and in our judgments based on those beliefs, and how we try to hold on to them instead of letting go; how we try to control people instead of letting them be themselves. Sometimes we have to learn very hard and valuable lessons in order to change.
NT Is there anything else you'd like to say about the play or the production?
KM What I also like about this play is that Ms. Wasserstein uses themes from Lear to depict what women have to deal with in everyday life, especially in mid-life; being a Mother whose daughter is about to 'fly the nest,' dealing with a Father with dementia, dealing with menopause, trying to cope with the fact that her best friend has cancer, dealing with a husband who's going through his own mid-life crisis, and trying to hold it all together while at the same time having a very high stress job. It really hits home the amount of stress that, not just women, but people in general have to deal with. For me personally, I've had to deal with most of these things, or at least similar things, in my life, so I can really relate to what she is going through.
PT Third is part of the Little Theatre’s Ubu’s Other Shoe series of staged readings. This program exists to give actors, directors and audience members an opportunity to experience incredible plays that, for whatever reason, do not fit into a regular Little Theatre season. The actors hold scripts, there are limited costumes and lighting and the words of the play are paramount. To me, it’s very rewarding as an actress to perform staged readings and, I think, it’s great for the audience as well.