Super-hot playwright Rebecca Gilman writes roles that call upon an actor's deepest resources. In plays such as Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, The Glory of Living, and The American in Me, the characters are complex, ambivalent, and often dark. They deal with inner turmoil and face society's greatest challenges.
So it's no wonder that New York actor Barbara Pitts dropped everything on about five days notice to fly west to appear in the American premiere of the Southern-born playwright's latest drama, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. "I was born to play this part," declares Pitts. She finds Gilman's work to be "funny, touching, politically provocative."
It's a coup for the Magic, the Bay Area's most important and longtime playwrights' theatre, to premiere this play. The multiple-award-winning Gilman has had works staged at places such as the Goodman, Lincoln Center, and the Public, to name just a few, and could have chosen a much larger venue, according to Magic Artistic Director Chris Smith. She is the toast of the town both stateside and in London. That she came to the Magic may have something to do with the fact that Gilman has a strong rapport with Magic artistic associate Amy Glazer, who previously directed The American in Me and Blue Surge at the Magic, Spinning Into Butter at the Peninsula's TheatreWorks, and is of course also directing the theatre's production of Baseball.
The play premiered in March 2004 at London's Royal Court Theatre, starring The X Files' Gillian Anderson, who received critical raves for her central role as Dana, a prominent New York artist whose career falters. Here, Dana is played by Pitts, who worked previously at the Magic in Stephen Belber's Drifting Elegant, also helmed by Glazer. She is supported, in multiple roles apiece, by Anne Darragh, Velina Brown, Michael Ray Wisely, and Joseph Parks.
In Baseball, Gilman explores several themes in a scenario that we can only imagine must be very close to her writer's heart. When Dana's latest exhibit tanks, she teeters on the brink of a nervous breakdown. She seeks refuge from the glitzy world of art critics, patrons, agents, and galleries by committing herself to a psychiatric ward, presumably temporarily. There she bonds with two male fellow patients. But when her health insurance threatens to expire, Dana, unready to leave the hospital and face reality, impulsively fakes psychosis by pretending she thinks she's baseball star Darryl Strawberry. The drama, with plenty of comedy interlaced, plays out to a startling, ambiguous conclusion. In tracing Dana's struggle to find her way as an artist, Gilman explores the nature of creativity and even of sanity, the siren call of celebrity, the destructive quality of professional jealousy, and the commercialization of life itself.
"I think it's a personal play," opines Smith. "Her work is remarkable for the emotional credibility. She addresses significant social concerns, but one of the more striking things is, she works from a reality that isn't slavish to realism. There's a common, colloquial poetry about her work, which is very engaging."
Playing the important, flawed central figure is surely a challenge. To prepare for Dana's multilayered quest—from commercial success to critical rejection to insurmountable depression to a weird sort of newfound freedom—Pitts observed an artist at work in his studio and learned to handle the specific painting tools necessary for the role; read Darryl Strawberry's book about his struggles with addiction; saw Ken Burns' 1994 film Baseball; and scrutinized a Yankees DVD that included footage of Strawberry. "I know a little bit about baseball, but not enough to know what makes his swing sweeter than the next guy's," says Pitts.
"This role is so wonderful," she continues. "A woman approaching 40, an artist—but it's not about her husband and children but about her and her career and how to continue when the pressures of that [affect] your emotional life. You're trying to keep that emotional channel open and protect it at the same time."
Can Pitts connect her life as an actor to the fictional Dana's dilemma as an artist? "Absolutely," she says. "To audition for a part, you have to invest, want it, see yourself in it—then let it go. And even after you're given the part, so many people weigh in on how the moment will be played, what you'll wear…. Since you're the person being watched, it's amazing how passive you're expected to be." Such is Dana's dilemma: Struggling to express herself as an artist, she is violently buffeted by the demands of the commercial world and tormented by her own fragile sense of her artist persona until…. Well, that's where Gilman's quirky imagination takes flight.
"I love roles like this—something that feels comfortable yet demands everything," exults Pitts. To get further inside her character's skin, she imagines stripping away all the structures that she has set up to support the vagaries of her life in theatre: her career coach, her network of actor friends. "Underneath all that stuff that I use to keep myself solid is that character: alone, underappreciated, scared I won't ever amount to anything," she says.
"It's a very interesting journey that this artist takes, wrestling with her own demons," remarks Smith of Gilman's troubled Dana. "It's almost comically whimsical but in reality very dark, tragic—paradoxically, both things at once. Which makes it very original."
"The Sweetest Swing in Baseball," presented by the Magic Theatre at Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tue.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2:30 pm. Jan. 29–Feb. 20. $20-$38. (415) 441-8822.