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In honor of Mother's Day, here's 'Mother Play' — which gestated for 40 years

Playwright Paula Vogel is known not just for her work on Broadway — but for the generations of famous playwrights whose careers she has nurtured. Above, Jessica Lange in Paula Vogel's <em>Mother Play. </em>
Joan Marcus
/
Second Stage
Playwright Paula Vogel is known not just for her work on Broadway — but for the generations of famous playwrights whose careers she has nurtured. Above, Jessica Lange in Paula Vogel's Mother Play.

To most of the public,Paula Vogel is best known for her moving, highly theatrical plays, among them How I Learned to Drive, Indecent and her latest work, Mother Play, starring Jessica Lange and up for several Tony Awards. But since 1984, she has taught scores of younger playwrights – first at Brown University, then at Yale.

"I love teaching as much as I love writing," said Vogel. "So, this is, actually, for the last 40 years, has been something of a juggling act, because I always miss doing the other one."

Over the years, her former students have won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes and have been produced on and off Broadway.

"I wanted my students to get on Broadway before I did," Vogel said. "I wanted my students to get produced at theater companies that I would never be produced in. And, you know, I always think of this as kind of one stop shopping; come in as an emerging playwright and leave the room as my colleague."

"One of the first things she said, the first day I met her, was, 'When a door opens for you, you hold it open and you let one other person through,'" said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, perhaps best known for writing the script and screenplay for In the Heights. "And that's her. Except for, she's really holding the door open and like, hundreds of people are coming through. She teaches you about the ethics; not just playwriting structure and style, but the ethics of living a life as a writer, as an artist. She models that."

A lifelong mentor

"I wanted my students to get on Broadway before I did," says playwright and professor Paula Vogel.
/ Second Stage
/
Second Stage
"I wanted my students to get on Broadway before I did," says playwright and professor Paula Vogel.

Vogel, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, frequently writes out of personal experience – sometimes painful personal experience. Her breakout play was The Baltimore Waltz, which dealt with her brother's dying of AIDS.

MacArthur Grant-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl said she studied with Vogel at a particularly vulnerable time in her life.

"I met Paula when I was 20, and my father had just died of cancer, and I was back at Brown and I was having a little trouble focusing," Ruhl said. "And Paula really understood how grief shapes an artist, and, also how to help artists out of that muddle and into their work."

In fact, Ruhl's breakout play, Euridyce, sends the title character to Hades where she meets her dead father.

When two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage first met Vogel, she was planning to go to journalism school and didn't realize that playwrighting was a career path for women.

"I was taking a playwriting seminar class, and she walked in and she was still a young, ambitious playwright figuring out how to teach playwriting," said Nottage. "And I found her to be warm and generous and nurturing and encouraging and really inspirational in ways that fed my spirit."

Her former students said it wasn't just their spirits being fed. "She would take me to this place, Café Zog in Providence on Wickenden street and we'd have a cookie," Ruhl said. "And, you know, she would feed her writers."

They still meet for the occasional cookie. Or drink.

Lynn Nottage recalled that when she and Vogel made their Broadway debuts in 2017, they frequently met for drinks, because they felt they weren't getting the support from the media and the Broadway community that they had hoped for.

"So, I think that having an ally and having a sister and having someone, literally, I could hold hands with and, you know, fight the powers-that-be, really emboldened me and allowed me to survive that."

She added that although Vogel is a kind person, she is also "a badass...she also does have that side that demands to be heard and demands to be seen and that is an advocate and fighter for other writers' voices."

"There are no classroom boundaries, I think, around the mentorship that Paula creates and fosters," said Ruhl. "It is lifelong."

Vogel and her wife, Anne Fausto-Sterling, officiated at Ruhl's wedding.

"I've actually officiated at a number of former students' weddings, which, has become one of my hobbies," Vogel said. "I love doing it."

All three playwrights have become teachers themselves, and friends with one another. Hudes said she and Vogel share early drafts of their plays. "I have read Mother Play. And I think it's her best play, and I don't say that lightly. I am in awe of her body of work."

The birth of Mother Play

Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange in <em>Mother Play.</em>
/ Joan Marcus
/
Joan Marcus
Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange in Mother Play.

Yet while Vogel may have become a nurturing teacher and colleague, Mother Play makes it clear that her own mother wasn't particularly nurturing.

Jessica Lange plays the fictional version. "In the play, Phyllis makes some absolutely unforgivable decisions and then really pays the price for it, lives with those consequences for the rest of her life," Lange said.

Vogel said Mother Play had a 40-year gestation period and it's her homage to the many mother plays written by men. "

"When I was sitting at the dinner table with my mother, my brother and I could quote Glass Menagerie at each other, have a little private joke, and get through dinnertime," Vogel said. "But I was curious as to what is the difference when women write mother plays."

Set over 40 years, her mother play is written with empathy and forgiveness. The audience sees the struggles this single mother goes through, with money, with alcohol, with her gay children, with loneliness. And all within the context of the constraints of the time period in which she lived.

"Maybe Paula existed in sort of resistance and rebellion to her mother," mused Lynn Nottage. "You think about the path that Paula has taken is that she never had biological children of her own, but she has this immense, beautiful family in the theater world. And that's really a blessing."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.