'Apples in Winter,' which is having its East Coast premiere at Centenary Stage Company Nov. 8, centers on a mother baking a pie for her son. It's to be his last meal before his state-ordered execution.
Playwright Jennifer Fawcett was pregnant with her first child while writing “Apples in Winter,” a one-woman show centered on Miriam, a mother baking her son a pie before his execution. It was understandably challenging.
“In some ways, I was tapping into my own terror about becoming a parent. There are so many emotions that go into it. What if things go wrong?” said Fawcett, whose son is now 3 years old. “As a parent, you’re constantly having to make choices and there’s still a part of me that thinks the adult in the room will tell me how to actually do this, then there’s the realization that I’m the adult in the room.”
“Apples in Winter,” which has its East coast premiere at Centenary Stage Company Nov. 8, has been in development for years but the subject matter is timely. Miriam’s son was suffering from severe drug withdrawal when he killed two people during an attempted robbery.
As New Jersey Advance Media reported in July, more than eight people die from drug overdoses each day in the state. In 2010, that figure was two people per day.
Centenary Stage Company General Manager Catherine Rust said two people she knew through her work and personal lives died by drug overdose in the last month. Her 20-something son was surprised a few years ago when a former classmate also succumbed to addition.
“I hardly know any family these days who has not been affected,” Rust said. “Everyone can identify with this. … To have someone my son’s age, someone so lively and energetic, be here one day and gone the next, it has impact.”
“Apples in Winter” grew from a one-page proposal Fawcett submitted to the National New Play Network, winning her the $10,000 commissioning prize. It is enjoying a “Rolling World Premiere,” “premiering” at theaters in Iowa City and Indianapolis as well as Hackettstown.
Having three companies offer different productions of the same show allows the playwright to have her words interpreted in different ways and can inspire different paths to follow later. Centenary Stage also supported the play’s development through its Women Playwright Series; Fawcett’s play won the company’s prestigious Susan Glaspell Award in 2017
The drama is set in a prison kitchen, where Miriam is making one of her famous apple pies. Her son, Robert, has been on Death Row for 22 years and, at last, his execution date has arrived. He has requested that his last meal be a slice of his mother’s specialty dessert. Miriam says it will be the last pie she ever bakes.
Because prison officials won’t allow her to cook in her own kitchen, Miriam is adjusting to the foreign one in which she finds herself, where a knife is attached to a counter for safety reasons. She’s carefully selected apples for the filling but is frustrated by their off-season quality.
Actress Colleen Smith Wallnau actually bakes a pie in a working oven onstage during the 75-minute production. (Sometimes, Rust said, the length of the show differs dependent on the state of the crust.)
“The baking of the pie is a kind of choreography,” Fawcett said. “When is she mixing the dough? When is she slicing the apples? … Feeding your child is an incredibly intimate act. Emotions are fraught when they won’t eat because you want to give comfort in feeding.”
Miriam tells her story while preparing the ingredients. She is grieving the son she is about to lose — Robert was a delightful child, she says — while also ultimately expressing how his actions have destroyed her.
“Toward the end of the play, she is able to talk about what it’s like to love somebody so dearly but to also be so angry and feel so betrayed by them,” Fawcett said. “She doesn’t start out there. It takes her a long time to get to that point.”
Fawcett was still writing the play after her son’s birth. In a “Note from the Playwright,” she described what it was like to step away from her work to watch his chest rise and fall as he slept.
“Now I could feel that deep gut-level drive to do anything to protect this little human, to give him the best life I could but what if… what if,” she wondered. “What if he isn’t happy? What if the world isn’t kind to him, or easy, or gentle? What if?”
During the show’s run, Centenary Stage Company has invited organizations that support people struggling with addiction and their families, including local group Parent-To-Parent, to set up information tables in the lobby. The Nov. 11 afternoon show includes a post-performance talk back with the cast, creative team and Keith Morgen, who runs the Centenary University’s Undergraduate Substance Abuse Research Team.
“We want to raise awareness about the support networks and treatment programs that are available,” Rust said. “Sometimes people don’t know what to do or where to go. There’s also a really delicate line between supporting someone fighting addiction and enabling them.”
That tightrope walk is also part of the play as Miriam reflects on her part in her son’s horrible actions. In her note, Fawcett said she hoped that would encourage the audience to see the actions through Miriam’s eyes.
“I think that’s what theatre does best, it asks you, me, all of us to sit in the “what if” for a little while,” she said. “It is an imaginative place, it isn’t real, but it feels real for a little while and that, I believe, is the best way to transcend ourselves temporarily into someone else’s shoes. That is a way to experience empathy.”
APPLES IN WINTER
Centenary Stage Company
Lackland Performing Arts Center
715 Grand Ave., Hackettstown
Tickets: $17.50-29.50, available online at http://www.centenarystageco.org. Nov. 8 -18.
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