Thrillers are the hardest genre to write, even harder than musical comedy," says playwright John Pielmeier. "It's all about the domino effect, and if one domino falls, you have to go back and fix everything."

Could this be the reason why it took almost four years between the world premiere of Pielmeier's play, Voices in the Dark, at Seattle's Contemporary Theater, and the play's second production at the George Street Playhouse?

Yes, says the accomplished playwright and author of the hugely successful Agnes of God. At a recent interview at George Street, Pielmeier admits to being busy reworking his Voices in the Dark script. This, however, doesn't appear daunting to the play's leading lady Gates McFadden, whose brief visit during the interview adds a touch of charm. And nothing seems to be troubling the play's director, Chris Ashley, who also joins us for a few minutes during a rehearsal break.

"Is he dumping a lot of new material on you?" I ask McFadden. "As much as he can," replies the actor whom many audience members will undoubtedly recognize from television and film appearances as Dr. Beverly Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." "I've done a lot of new plays," she says, "but what's great is that there isn't the tension here that there can be with a new play."

In "Voices in the Dark," McFadden retains her doctor's credentials. This time she plays Dr. Lil Anderson, a popular New York City radio talk show psychologist who tries to deal with her marital problems while in the midst of an increasingly disquieting, sensation-oriented career. There is tension afoot for McFadden's endangered character when she becomes stranded during a blizzard in her husband's cabin in the woods in upstate New York.

Need we say that the play's psychologist may not be alone as she had expected? A caller, who claims to have murdered several women, has tracked her down and wants her help. The other actors in the play -- who may or may not be a threat to McFadden's wellbeing -- are John Ahlin, Peter Bartlett, Lenny Blackburn, Alec Dennis, Nicole Fonarow, Jonathan Hogan and Robert Petkoff.

Now that's tension. But perhaps no more so than the situations that Pielmeier has conjured up for his other plays, including the provocative Agnes of God, the vivid war drama, Boys of Winter, and the mystery thriller, Sleight of Hand.

Will Voices in the Dark make it to Broadway as did his previous three plays? Pielmeier, who does not remember his Broadway experiences as particularly happy times, officially takes the attitude: "I'm not thinking about that right now." This may stem from his early days as an actor. "As an actor, I didn't enjoy my life," he says. "I was very unhappy, until I wrote Agnes of God."

Pielmeier's talent as an actor is backed by an impressive list of regional theaters where he performed, including the Actors Theater of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

What happened to change Pielmeier's profession from actor to playwright? Pielmeier says he was acting at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center National Playwright's Conference when he decided to submit his script for Agnes of God for a staged reading. Pielmeier's time had come, and he acted with the confidence of someone who understood the O'Neill's focus and its artistic agenda. "I knew the kinds of things that worked well there, such as a setless, three character play," he says. Agnes of God, about a young nun who has been convicted of killing her own infant immediately after its birth, was co-winner of the 1979 Great American Play contest, prior to its premiere in 1980 at the Actors Theater of Louisville. After several regional productions, Agnes of God enjoyed a 17-month run on Broadway during the 1981-82 season, and was also notable for stellar performances by Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer. Pielmeier subsequently wrote the screenplay for the successful film version, directed by Norman Jewison.

If Pielmeier acknowledges that nothing he has written since Agnes of God has been equally applauded, he continues to encourage those who would and "must" write plays for a living. However, Pielmeier does admit he also returns to acting in rare circumstances. Most recently, he was in a one-man show he wrote called Willi, based on the life and teachings of Willi Unsoeld, an ordained minister and mountaineering guru from the Northwest who climbed Mount Everest and was a leader of the Outward Bound movement.

Although I know tension is a driving force in Pielmeier's thriller, it is clear as I look at Chris Ashley's smiling face that he is a director more inclined to relieve than instigate tension in rehearsals. Ashley, a recipient of the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for his outstanding direction of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (both onstage and on screen), seems not the least bit harried by the stress of the upcoming previews. Noted as the director of the one-woman shows Fire in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and Blown Sideways Through Life, with Claudia Shear, Ashley also directed the delightful but under-appreciated Off-Broadway musical, Das Barbecue. This latter show apparently sold Ashley to Pielmeier. Now Pielmeier's director of choice is making his directorial debut at George Street. And although Voices in the Dark has been optioned for New York, Ashley says, "I am less concerned less about the play as a future commercial piece than I am about making it work here."

Who wouldn't love to write a thriller? But where do the ideas come from? Back around 1991, a friend of his at a regional theater told Pielmeier that his theater was looking for a good new thriller. Pielmeier recalls saying to himself, "I guess I'll have to do something."

Although Pielmeier recognizes that, unlike the anguish of Agnes of God, the angst of Voices in the Dark will probably not be regarded as an "important play," he knows there's a market among audiences for a thriller that thrills. "No, Voices in the Dark is not going to change anyone's life," says Pielmeier with a chuckle. "It's for fun."

Born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Pielmeier went to Catholic University, where he earned his degree in drama in 1970. He earned an MFA in playwriting at Penn State. If Pielmeier is modest about his subsequent honorary doctorate degree from St. Edwards University, he exhibits the same self-effacing attitude when talking about his life. As the son of a grocer and a housewife, neither of whom had any theatrical inclinations, Pielmeier still cherishes their response to his decision to go into the theater -- "It sounds like a very responsible profession," they told him. Wow!

While speaking of his own youth, Pielmeier asks parents not to bring children under 12 to his Voices in the Dark. Because of its explicit sexual references and implicit violence, he says if this were a film, it would be R-rated. Director Ashley says that this is a thriller that will involve its adult audiences in the visceral way. "Even with no blood and zero gore, it still comes across as tremendously scary and shocking," says Ashley. While Pielmeier is the first to admit how few thrillers are completely successful, he also admits he is unsure how scary audiences actually want a play to be. "This is a pretty scary play. So just don't anyone tell me that I scared them too much," he says.

Set designer David Gallo created the play's primal and "completely organic" log cabin. Gallo, whose sets for Jackie, and Bunny Bunny Off-Broadway were dazzling exhibits in themselves, promises to create another equally visceral experience for Voices in the Dark.
Although the cabin in the play may look like the place where writers choose to write their plays, Pielmeier says he wrote Voices in the Dark in "my own little home, somewhat in the woods." He lives there with his wife Irene O'Garden, also known as Irene O'Book, a poet and writer of children's books.

How exactly has the conspicuous successes and failures of his plays impacted Pielmeier's life? "I really enjoy working in the theater as a kind of challenging game. But when it ceases to be fun, I don't like to do it anymore," he says, with a childlike honesty. Pielmeier says he makes his living writing primarily for TV and film. Some of his more noteworthy screenplays have included, "Agnes of God," "The Stranger Within," "The Last P.O.W.," "The Bobby Garwood Story," and an adaptation of Dominick Dunne's novel, "An Inconvenient Woman." But Pielmeier is also candid about his last two experiences on Broadway where, he says, the fun factor was sucked out. This disappointing response has made Pielmeier, if not totally bitter, then tentatively reticent about setting himself up for another disappointment. "I didn't write for a long time," he says, confessing that it has been more than 10 years since he presented a play in New York. "I only want this to continue if it is going to be a good experience," he says, allowing that he would prefer that if the play moves at all, to move from George Street to an Off-Broadway venue.

Even as Pielmeier expresses his unwillingness to be placed in the Broadway arena again, he says he would like the result of this experience at George Street to be a turning point for him personally. "I want to feel more comfortable writing again for the theater," he says, "and then to start writing some more serious things." Perhaps Pielmeier need only wait and listen to his own voice in the dark to hear the ideas for his next play.



Key Subjects: 
John Pielmeier, Voices in the Dark, George Street Playhouse, Agnes of God, Christopher Ashley
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
March 1998