Playwright Alfred Uhry speaks about his resulting 70-minute, one-act adaptation, “Apples & Oranges,” which will have its world premiere Wednesday on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage.
When Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow approached Alfred Uhry to adapt Marie Brenner’s “Apples & Oranges” for the stage, she told the Atlanta native that she thought he was the only one who could handle the job.
Uhry is well known as a playwright with a strong humanist streak, perhaps best exemplified by “Driving Miss Daisy,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a best screenplay Oscar.
“Daisy,” of course, dealt with the evolving relationship between a defiant, elderly Jewish Atlanta woman and her patient, dignified African-American chauffeur. “Apples & Oranges,” which is currently in previews and has its world premiere Wednesday on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage, the same intimate space where “Daisy” ran for 20 months starting in 1988, also deals with a yawning chasm between quarreling characters that ultimately narrows.
In her 2008 memoir, Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner wrote about the extreme differences that could not keep her and her brother Carl apart after he was diagnosed with cancer. She was a liberal, prize-winning journalist, a Jewish New York sophisticate; he was a gun-totin’, babe-lovin’ Texas lawyer-turned-Washington-State-apple-farmer with a fierce independent streak whose frequent references to “the Lord Jesus” never failed to get her goat. Though born only two years apart, they always had little in common beyond blood, leading their mother early on to refer to them as apples and oranges.
The blood relationship is what intrigued Uhry, 75, who himself grew up with a sister with whom he has worked to remain close, Atlanta author Ann Uhry Abrams.
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“Marie got into something interesting that I’d never really thought about as dramatic material, which is when it’s one brother and one sister, you can’t rely on same-sex stuff like brothers might have or sisters might have,” Uhry said in a call from Manhattan, his home since 1958. “But you still got all that background together and all that shared knowledge. That was really interesting to me.”
When Alfred Uhry called his sister in Atlanta to share the exciting news that he had been commissioned to adapt “Apples & Oranges,” author Ann Uhry Abrams blurted, “Oh my God, you’re not writing about you and me, are you?”
“I said, “Ann, I don’t think we’re that interesting!” the playwright recalled with a hearty laugh.
That could be debated, but indeed Uhry’s job was to remain true to Brenner’s book about her late-blossoming bond with her brother Carl, despite a lifetime of differences and distance, during his life-threatening health crisis.
Q: In a lot of plays or movies, the transformation of key characters can be 180 degrees. Reading your script, Marie and Carl’s changes seemed more nuanced, smaller and yet still somehow monumental …
A: Thank you. But to me that’s the whole sibling game. It’s there and a lot of people just mess it up. They get mad at each other, and they’re too proud or too stupid to call each other.
These two worked through it. He was saying, “Help me,” “Don’t help me.” It was a push, pull thing for them the whole time. He was very proud, very brave, very masculine and he didn’t want to appear needy, but he was needy. And really in his life he didn’t have anyone else he could trust, and he opened the door and she pushed through it.
Q: Some of the disagreements between Marie and Carl reminded me of the squabbling between Miss Daisy and Hoke — seriously angry at times yet under girded by a growing affection that neither wanted to confess.
A: I guess I’m drawn to relationships like that, and I’m also interested in relationships where it’s not a romantic relationship. You can’t resolve anything that way, so you have to figure out other ways to [reach each other].
Q: What is the challenge of taking on an adaption as you’ve done with “Apples & Oranges” vs. writing an original script?
A: In a way it’s good because you’ve already got the story laid out, but the hard thing is you’ve got to make it your own. And in the case of Marie Brenner’s book, it was difficult because it was beautifully written. So you have to turn it into your thing with her work there in the background. I would never say it wasn’t there. It’s clearly there, but I had to turn it into a play. She didn’t write a play.
Q: What is the process like? Do you get out a red marker first and go to town?
A: Well, the process for me is horrible and painful and stupid. I put myself through hoops I probably don’t need to go through. My first inclination is, “Oh, [shoot], I can’t do this, and I’m going to mess it up and they shouldn’t have called me and I wish I wasn’t involved.” And then I start to read the book, and I have to read the book many, many times. And then I had to let it just simmer for a while in my head.
Q: The paperback of “Apples & Oranges” is 304 pages and your script is 83 pages. That’s a lot of winnowing down, and I’m guessing it happened in many stages over many months?
A: I was a year late, maybe it was a year and a half, because I couldn’t think how to do it. I just didn’t want to write a play where you have all these actors. Then it occurred to me one day just out of the correct blue that I’m going write a two-character play. And I’d never written a two-character play.
It was a revelation on how to do it, but then I had to do it. And I realized Marie would narrate because that’s just the way it seems to set itself up: She relates to the audience and to her brother, and Carl relates only to her. Once I had those rules… and I think everything you write, you set up your own rules — “I can do this but I can’t do that” — that sort of helps you focus. So I did that but it’s hard to keep the train moving when there’s just two people.
Q: How much back and forth was there with Marie? It’s not like you had to have her blessing, right?
A: No, no. It’s hard because you want her there and then you don’t want her there. And she knows that because she’s a writer. So it was really hard. She backed off when she was supposed to back off. But I did call her a few times when I was writing and asked her a question.
She was very accessible. She and I went out to Washington for three days a couple of years ago and I really soaked up a lot of stuff. I’d never been to Washington state except to Seattle, and you cross those Cascades and it’s another world. I didn’t know that much about the apple business, and I learned a lot. I met a lot of Carl Brenner’s colleagues. It was just great.
Q: Has she seen the finished piece?
A: She was present a few weeks ago at the first reading, and the actors [Patricia Richardson and Tony Carlin] sort of pounced on her: “What you think about this? What do you think about that?” And she was very smart. She didn’t say much.
Q: But you assume she liked it?
A: She’s been very supportive, and she’s coming to Atlanta. She’s a very interesting woman, she’s a journalist and really smart and really connected. Her best friends are people like Peggy Noonan and Leslie Stahl, and Nora Ephron was her dear friend. So she moves in that world, which is way away from my own world.
Q: I imagine the Hertz Stage, with only 200 seats, is going to be a good place to tell her rather personal story.
A: I love the Hertz Stage. A, Jennings Hertz [Jr., the Atlanta philanthropist who died in 2009] was someone I knew very well. And B, I’ve had very good luck there. And it’s very right for the play, and it’s being staged perfectly, with only two stools. It’s really a brave decision. It features the actors and the writing.”
Q: What is it like to return to Atlanta, where “Daisy” had such a long run and where your “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” also had its world premiere?
A: Oh my God, it means everything to me. At least in my experience, Atlanta has been a great theater town. They seem to like my stuff. And I’m delighted to be able to come home and see some family. This dear friend of mine who I went to school with in every grade from nursery school up though high school somehow has taken it upon herself to contact everyone who’s still walking around. And they’re all coming to a preview, including several girls from Druid Hills High School that I haven’t seen in a long time. I had huge crushes on those girls!
Q: They’re not girls anymore, you understand?
A: Oh, but they will be to me.