Writing for television and writing for the stage require different skills, but Sharyn Rothstein has done both successfully.
Now a co-writer on the USA network drama “Suits,” she also has been preparing her newest play, “All the Days,” for its opening tonight at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton. That’s a feat that includes flying back and forth between coasts.
When it comes to TV, “I call it the story factory,” she said. “You have a group of talented writers to do that with.” Writing a play is a much more solitary process, according to Ms. Rothstein. Basically, “You sit in a room and bang your head against the wall.”
Another unusual aspect to Ms. Rothstein’s writing career is that she has a master’s in public health as well as the more conventional master’s in fine arts. “All the Days” started as a one-act play when she was a graduate student, in fact. Bridging her two fields of study, she wrote a short play about a mother and daughter who are dealing with the mother’s diabetes and food addiction, both serious public health problems. Ms. Rothstein went back to the play later, when she was a member of the Ars Nova play group, a New York City-based theater development organization. Now, “All the Days” is getting a full production at McCarter, directed by Emily Mann, the center’s multi-award-winning artistic director and resident playwright. “It’s a beautiful family play,” Ms. Mann said. “The need to be forgiven is a deep theme in the play. There’s a lot of love.”
“All the Days” centers on Ruth, a long-divorced Jewish woman battling diabetes and obesity, and her fraught relationship with her daughter Miranda, who has her own issues with her gentile boyfriend. Ruth has come back to Long Island for her grandson’s bar mitzvah, which brings her into close contact with her sister, Monica. The three women at the heart of the play share funny and acerbic dialogue along with powerful emotional revelations. “Strong, complicated women tend to be at the center of what I write,” Ms. Rothstein said. “I particularly love funny women. What a joy it was to let [Ruth and Monica and Miranda] talk.
“I didn’t know who would show up.”
Director Mann felt a deep affinity for the characters too, even though she grew up in a different kind of Jewish family. “Sharyn’s created real characters and serious issues are being dealt with. I know these people, but it’s not my people,” Ms. Mann said. She grew up in an academic family in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Chicago, and her family tied its identity to Jewish ethics rather than religious observance. “My parents are culturally Jewish,” Ms. Mann said. “They weren’t religious, but I decided I wanted to get confirmed. I went to a Reform temple,” KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, across the street from where the Obamas lived. “I wanted to find a more spiritual life,” Ms. Mann said. “I loved the service.” KAM had a choir, and Max Janowski, a renowned composer of Jewish liturgical music, led it.
Ms. Mann’s father, Arthur Mann, a professor at the University of Chicago, was deeply immersed in the civil rights movement. Prominent civil rights leaders often were in their home, and John Hope Franklin, the eminent African American historian, was her father’s close friend. The drive for social justice has inspired much of Ms. Mann’s own work in the theater. The plays she has written include the Vietnam War drama “Still Life”; “Execution of Justice,” about the murder of San Francisco’s gay politician Harvey Milk; and “Greensboro: A Requiem.” She probably is best known for her Broadway production of “Having Our Say,” a memoir play about the Delaney sisters, two African-Americans who were successful businesswomen and civil rights pioneers. Her first play, “Annulla,” was based on her best friend’s aunt’s Holocaust memories, interspersed with her own grandmother’s recollections of her ancestral village.
Since both Ms. Rothstein and Ms. Mann are interested in social problems, their collaboration on “All the Days” has been a natural. “The cast has exceeded all my expectations,” said Ms. Rothstein, and it has been a fabulous experience to develop the play with McCarter. Social issues intrigue her because “I think of them as questions you can’t easily answer.” Her first play, “Neglect,” was based on a Chicago heat wave that caused many deaths. The recent Manhattan Theater Club production of “By the Water” was triggered by Superstorm Sandy.
Overeating is a complicated American problem, which impacts women even more than their male peers. There is so much judgment and so much shame surrounding eating, Ms. Rothstein said. “It is an addiction, and unlike other addictions, you must keep doing it to survive.” Eating is woven into life, love, and celebration, she points out. Unlike other substances that may be harmful, you can’t eliminate it from your life. Ruth and Miranda struggle to find a way to love and forgive each other despite Ruth’s self-destructiveness. “Addiction always outsmarts you,” Ms. Rothstein said, no matter how smart you are.
Emily Mann is dedicated to bringing plays about women — three dimensional, real women — onto the stage. “All the Days” fits that bill perfectly. “The most exciting work I’m reading right now is by women and people of color,” she said, but not much of it is getting produced. She feels it is her responsibility to get the next generation ready. “It’s fear, it’s not quality,” that is standing in the way.