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Buck Celebrates Friends, 'Strangers'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page C05

Jeanette Buck's play "There Are No Strangers" is about post-traumatic stress disorder and the nature of healing. It is also a thank-you note to her friends in the Washington theater community and elsewhere who helped her recover from a vicious assault several years ago in Los Angeles.

Theater J, where Buck is the associate producer, is presenting the solo piece, starring Holly Twyford, through April 17.

Jeanette Buck delves into her own depths with "There Are No Strangers." (Courtesy Theater J)

Watching Twyford portray her at an early rehearsal, Buck's first reaction was exhilaration. "I was sitting there trying to be quiet and I just had to tell them it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life," she recalls.

"It wasn't so much that it was about me, but having something that I've written come alive like that," Buck says. "Even though it's my story and they are my memories and it is my history, I think at some point you disconnect."

Twyford has no intention of trying to impersonate the author on stage. "It's difficult enough portraying somebody who's alive, period," says the actress, but "somebody that you know very well -- that's a toughie. I think that the key is to not think about that. . . . It's more important to tell the story."

Now in her early forties, Buck was a stage manager in Washington from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Then she got a degree in filmmaking and made a movie, "Out of Season" (1998). The film's reception at festivals inspired Buck to move to Los Angeles and try to get into the movie industry. After the attack and ensuing reconstructive surgeries, she eventually returned to Washington.

"There Are No Strangers" moves up and back in time. It shows "how healing works and how your mind works. Things don't happen in order," Buck says. "The script is not very linear," Twyford agrees, adding that director Delia Taylor "likes to say that it is kind of wavelike. It sort of ebbs and flows. And that's what healing is, really."

Buck adds: "Therapists should come see this play. It's like a case study, with all the dreams and all the trying to find meaning" in what happened to her. After years of spiritual questing, she says, "I primarily connect with the basic Quaker message of trying to find that of God in every person."

Taylor, like Twyford, has been working on the play since Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth held a reading of it last year. She says that despite the brutal assault at the play's core, "there's much about it that's very funny. It's in the writing and Holly's able to bring that to life."

"There Are No Strangers" is not a typical choice for the adventurous but largely Jewish-themed theater company, but it contains a speech in which Buck quotes a rabbi friend, Leah Cohen. She told Buck how Moses smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments after finding that his people had fallen back into idol worship. The chastened Israelites put the pieces into the Ark along with the new tablets God gave Moses because "whole and broken, they were both sacred."

"That's hopefully one of the ways that the play's universal," Buck says. "I mean, we all have broken pieces. We're all carrying our broken pieces."

Director's New Gig

Life has just gotten a lot busier for Arena Stage's Wendy C. Goldberg. The same day the artistic associate's production of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" began previews last month, she was named artistic director of the prestigious National Playwrights Conference.

Goldberg will remain on Arena's staff "for the time being, but that may shift" with the new job and other freelance directing duties.

The Playwrights Conference, held in July at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., is an intensive month of creative nurturing for new and established playwrights. It has, over the past 40 years, served such theatrical lights as August Wilson, Sam Shepard and John Guare. Turmoil over its finances and operation in 2003 and 2004 caused the conference to lose some of its "national significance," Goldberg says.

"I'm hoping to get it back on the map in a significant way. It is their hope that I will do that," she says. "I'm pretty thrilled about it all," Goldberg adds. "It's what I love to do -- work with writers this closely at this very early stage of the game and give life to projects." She already is deep into choosing the playwrights who'll participate in this summer's conference.

The 31-year-old Goldberg speculates she was chosen not only on the basis of her directing credits ("Proof," "The Book of Days," "K2" at Arena, "The Blue Room" at Signature, "Oleanna" at Source) but also because of the five years she's spent running Downstairs in the Old Vat, Arena's play development program. Half of the plays read there have gone on to full productions around the country, she boasts, and she hopes to replicate that success with the O'Neill.

She lists Charles Randolph-Wright ("Blue," "Cuttin' Up"), Sarah Ruhl ("The Clean House," "Passion Play"), Nilo Cruz ("Anna in the Tropics") and Wendy Wasserstein ("An American Daughter," "Third") as dramatists who have "deepening relationships" with Arena via the Old Vat readings.

Speaking of which, the spring installment at the Old Vat begins next week. Readings will feature "Mary T. & Lizzie K." (April 14) by Tazewell Thompson, about Mary Todd Lincoln and her African American dressmaker, Lizzie Keckley; "The As If Body Loop" (April 15) by Ken Weitzman, a comedy premised on an old Hebrew legend; "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" (April 16) by Rebecca Gilman; and "Undiscovered Genius of the Concrete Jungle" (April 18) by hip-hop theater artist Psalmayene 24. The readings are at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

All but Gilman's "are commissioned pieces, which means that if I have a draft, I have a very, very skeletal first draft, which is going to grow into another draft that they will show up with," says Goldberg, who sounds remarkably calm.

Follow Spots

• Actors Ted van Griethuysen and Catherine Flye, director Richard Clifford and Folger Theatre producer Janet Griffin will talk about their upcoming production of "The Clandestine Marriage" (April 15-May 22) by 18th-century British theatrical superstar David Garrick and George Colman at a dinner event Monday at the Woman's National Democratic Club. The English-Speaking Union and Shakespeare Guild are the sponsors. Call 202-234-4602 or visit www.esuwdc.org.

• Scott Fortier (Catalyst Theater Company) and Jennifer Nelson (African Continuum Theatre Company) have been chosen to participate in the 2005 Canadian/Washington Theatre Partnership -- an arrangement between the Canadian Embassy and Helen Hayes Awards that sends artistic directors on expense-paid trips to see Canadian theater.

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