After Jason Loewith took over as artistic director at Olney Theatre in February, one of his first orders of business was to fill a gap in the season. Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” which was to be helmed by former artistic director Martin Platt, had to go, and Loewith needed to find something with a similarly sly tone to round out the docket.
His previous job as director of the National New Play Network, an incubator for fresh theater, held the key.
Last November, Loewith chose, among others, Steven Dietz’s “Rancho Mirage” for the network’s showcase of new plays at Woolly Mammoth. The event consisted of staged readings of works that didn’t yet have theaters attached.
“And the response was just so overwhelming that when, two months later, I was asked to take over at Olney and replace that show, it was right in front of me,” Loewith says. “I was looking for satire, comedy and a signal that Olney’s programming is going to be much more contemporary and much more risk-taking than it has in the past.”
“Rancho Mirage” is indeed a bit of a risk. Loewith’s first shot at directing at Olney also is the first stop of the play’s rolling world premiere. That might spell pressure for the director, but at least Dietz, the prolific playwright, isn’t piling on. The writer made a couple of trips to Olney and was joined on one occasion by representatives from the other theaters hosting the premiere.
“The first thing I said to everyone is that I don’t believe in the notion of a definitive production,” Dietz says by phone from his home in Austin. “The words are going to be the same in every city, and I think we were able to sort out approaches and passions and questions about the play, but it was very important for me to send signals to say to them: ‘Please make your own production of this play. Launch it in a way that uses the strengths of your designers, what your audience expects, your actors.’ ”
“And I think they believed me,” he adds with a laugh.
The play follows three couples, all longtime friends, who get together for a dinner party and decide to come clean with each other, revealing all the judgmental thoughts they had been too polite to say aloud.
“The core of it I think is that I became and remain very intrigued with a sort of veneer that we put on our lives . . . a veneer of contentment that perhaps hides financial stresses or marital stresses or job stresses,” Dietz says. “And what intrigued me the most is that in some ways I think that veneer hardens around our friends, meaning I think sometimes it is more important to keep up appearances around people we love the most.”
The play’s tone, which shifts from uproarious to darkly serious, is among its trickier aspects. Then there’s the task of making the audience care about characters who unleash a fair amount of ugliness on one another. But there are payoffs. Where most plays since the late 1800s have been based on the revelation of some big secret, Loewith says, Dietz’s story culminates with many discoveries.
“And the way he’s constructed that second act is really masterful,” Loewith says. “If we can make it work, the engine of the play just speeds you along so quickly and then gets to what I think is an extremely heartfelt resolution. It’s sort of spectacular.”
For his part, Loewith has plenty of experience with plays that dabble in comedy, satire and farce, and he says it was important that his first play at Olney play to his strengths. He also feels at home with stories that tackle the American dream; he sees this play fitting into that category.
“Dietz’s work is very, very American, which is to say no matter how dark the circumstances, there is always a glimmer of hope,” Loewith says. “ ‘Rancho,’ although it goes to very dark places at the end of the second act, to me is very redemptive.”
Through Oct. 20. Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. www.olneytheatre.org. $31-$63.50.