It's no wonder that Eclipse Theatre Company's artistic ensemble had such a difficult time selecting only three plays for its 2015 season dedicated to the works of playwright Terrence McNally. That's because the output of the four-time Tony Award-winner is so very prolific.
McNally's numerous plays range in style from the 1974 gay bathhouse farce The Ritz to his 1995 portrait of opera singer Maria Callas in Master Class. Musical theater works also factor into McNally's oeuvre, with him crafting the books to adaptations of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime and plays like Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Visit. He's even provided the opera librettos for composer Jake Heggie's tragedy Dead Man Walking and their new original comedy Great Scott that just debuted at Dallas Opera in October.
McNally himself was faced with a similar selection dilemma when Grove Press asked him to pick just eight of his plays for the recently published anthology Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays.
"They wanted familiar titleseight of my lesser-known plays would not have sold very well," McNally said in a face-to-face interview with Windy City Times on Nov. 13. "So it's a combination of well-known plays and two very recent plays that maybe people don't know: Mothers and Sons and one I like very much called And Away We Go, which was done at a small theater company off-Broadway called The Pearl. I wrote it for them and it sort of fell through the cracks… It's protected now because if your plays aren't published, they vanish."
Three of the eight plays in the anthology turned out to be the ones chosen for Eclipse's McNally season: Lips Together, Teeth Apart from 1991, A Perfect Ganesh from 1993 and its current production of The Lisbon Traviata from 1989. McNally's Tony Award-nominated 2013 drama Mothers and Sons will have its regional premiere in January at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
"I was very flattered and honored. Because I think that a writer is more than his latest hit show and so many theaters just schedule your plays that were successful," said McNally about theater companies like Eclipse that build a whole season around a single playwright. "I think you don't really know Shakespeare unless you know all his playsnot just Othello, King Lear and Twelfth Night. There's some valleys among the mountains."
Despite that viewpoint, McNally shied away from including his earlier plays for Selected Works. McNally felt that his personal and political viewpoints bled too much into the characters of those early scripts.
"I also didn't want the book to be so big that nobody picked it up," McNally said.
Selected Works also gave McNally the opportunity to dabble his toe into writing an autobiography. Since he arrived in New York in the 1950s and became such a vital artistic part of the off-Broadway theater scene, McNally has often been pressured to write about his life as a playwright and as a chronicler of gay culture. Now at age 76, McNally said he wasn't entirely comfortable with autobiographical writing since he feels more adept at crafting characters and dialogue.
"I think my plays are my autobiography. But that's not the same as telling stories about what happened," McNally said. "So I thought that writing these autobiographical introductions or essays to each play gave people a reason to buy the book because most theatergoers who care about the plays already have them."
In the introductions, McNally offers bountiful behind-the-scenes insights into the inspiration to many of his plays. There's also what could be construed as light gossip about luminaries like actress Zoe Caldwell, opera singer Leontyne Price and author John Steinbeck.
"There's still two to three plays I still want to write and an autobiography is time away from that," McNally said. "And then you have to decide how necessary it is to tell your story. It's very easy to write a book that insults or as a 'get-back' to settle scores. I would not be interested in doing that. And just a lot of name dropping isn't helpful."
In terms of future projects, McNally wants to shave off about 20 minutes from the opera Great Scott ( he and Heggie will have an opportunity to do so when San Diego Opera presents it in May of 2016 ). He's also reteaming with his Ragtime collaborators, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, for a stage adaptation of their 1997 animated feature Anastasia. McNally also hinted that a starry revival of one of his anthology plays might be mounted on Broadway next season.
"I definitely know that I'm in the third act of my life," said McNally, wishing for more chances to travel and to spend time with his husband, lawyer-turned-producer Thomas Kirdahy. "I know there's more to life than just writing plays."
Eclipse Theatre Company concludes its 2015 Terrence McNally season with The Lisbon Traviata, which continues through Sunday, Dec. 13, in Studio 3 of the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $30 and $20 for students and seniors. For more information, call 773-935-6875 or visit www.eclipsetheatre.com .
The Chicago-area premiere of Mothers and Sons runs from Friday, Jan. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 28, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets range from $15-$68. Call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org .
Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays by Terrence McNally is available now through Grove Press. It includes play scripts to Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; The Lisbon Traviata: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Master Class; And Away We Go and Mothers and Sons.