NEW YORK — Carey Perloff was stumped. She was directing Racine's "Phèdre" at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 2009, and she was trying to wrap her head around the title character's obsession with her strapping young stepson, a forbidden desire that could bring her husband's kingdom to its knees. In the play, not only does this powerful queen admit to her illicit infatuation for Hippolytus, but when she finds out he's in love with another woman, she sinks into despair, vows vengeance, and conspires to have him destroyed.
Why would she risk everything she has — her marriage, her kingdom, her culture, her own children — for this guy?
"I really had to think, what would lead somebody to the depths of that obsession? The Greeks thought of obsession as a kind of possession — that love is a kind of disease and a madness," says the indefatigable Perloff, who's not only a playwright and a theater director but has served as artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater since 1992.
That theme intrigued her so deeply she decided to explore it in a contemporary context as a playwright. The resulting drama, "Kinship," receives its American premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival July 15-25, starring Cynthia Nixon, Chris Lowell, and Penny Fuller.
The play centers on a driven newspaper editor (Nixon) with a great life — a nurturing husband, a couple of children, and a successful career. But as she navigates the rocky shoals of the digital media world, she embarks on an affair with a young reporter (Lowell) in her charge. Unbeknownst to her, he's the son of a close older friend, who she meets up with regularly for coffee and conversation. That friend (Fuller), a former actress and overprotective mother, has a strained relationship with her son.
As the secrets and revelations come tumbling out, the power dynamics of the relationships shift quickly and unpredictably.
A powerful woman seducing a younger guy or having an affair with a less powerful man is a dynamic people rarely get to see onstage.
"As a woman, you have to hold it all together and you have to be perfect and responsible and intrepid and invulnerable, and people are second-guessing you all the time and are not quite sure you're capable," says Perloff, in a Manhattan rehearsal studio where the company was prepping the show before its move to Williamstown. "So I think the flip-side of it is a kind of recklessness. This woman finally wants to succumb. And the repercussions are terrible."
The idea wasn't to write about a woman whose growing obsession with another man stems from unhappiness or a terrible marriage. In fact, the attraction between the two characters is the kind of unbridled passion that, Perloff says, is "often not a recipe for a marriage."
"It's that thing when you realize that all day, every day, somebody else is thinking about you, and you're thinking about them. It's intoxicating because it feels like a total joining of souls and minds and bodies. He not only understands her but gives her permission to be vulnerable. That's incredibly gratifying — for both of them. But it's very short-lived. And it completely upends her life."
Indeed, as in "Phèdre," obsession isn't the only primal instinct that rears its head in "Kinship." As events unfold, Nixon's character turns angry and vengeful. "She does become monstrous. She does try to destroy him," Perloff says.
Nixon was Perloff's first choice to play the part. The "Sex and the City" icon, who's also a veteran theater actress, was drawn to the character because of her mass of contradictions, particularly the way she shifts from steeliness to vulnerability, often within a single scene.
"At one moment she is the most confident, authoritative, decisive, level-headed, powerful person you would ever want to meet," Nixon says, over bites of sushi a few blocks from the rehearsal studio. "And then in the next minute she's just a quivering mass of jelly that doesn't know which way is up. So that's really gratifying to play."
Nixon says she identifies with a character who's trying to juggle all various responsibilities of her life but has perhaps grown "tired of being the grown-up all the time."
"It's like when you've done everything right, but somehow the soul is missing from it. Then you meet somebody and just all of a sudden everything lights up," Nixon says. "I think she hadn't realized how hungry she was for just some unencumbered passion with nothing else attached to it."
Interspersed throughout "Kinship" are sections of translated "Phèdre" text, which Nixon performs in short asides. However, director Jo Bonney says Perloff has been stripping a lot of that away. "As this contemporary piece of storytelling becomes more grounded," says Bonney, "I feel like the actual 'Phèdre' text is allowed to dissipate, because its essence is already in the play."
"Kinship" made its world premiere in Paris last fall as a vehicle for reclusive French acting legend Isabelle Adjani. Because Adjani is a gay icon and was making her return to the stage after an eight-year absence, the production was a highly anticipated cultural event. Yet it was fraught with behind-the-scenes drama. Spanish film star Carmen Maura dropped out. After parting ways with the original director, Adjani decided to co-direct the show herself alongside the production's costume designer. She scrapped the expensive set and instead went with a stripped-down design. Rehearsals dragged on for months, and Perloff got anxious when she began hearing negative press.
Although Perloff wasn't involved in the production, she flew to Paris for an early preview of "Kinship" and was stunned by what she saw.
"The theater is filled with the most beautifully dressed gay couples you have ever seen, and they all had flowers for [Isabelle]. And I watch the play, and I have to say, it was unbelievably beautiful. It was nothing like I imagined! It was like [Sartre's] 'No Exit.' They act out all the subtext. Because they're French!"
Perloff began writing plays in her early 20s, but she got sidetracked as she focused on directing and administration. She credits a month spent reworking an early play of hers, "The Colossus of Rhodes," at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, for putting her back on the writing path 15 years ago.
Her return to playwrighting, she says, has been rejuvenating.
"When you run a theater, you are there in service of everyone else — your audience, your artists, the public, and the American theater at large," she says. "I thought, if I am going to sustain a career and not get completely sucked dry and become bitter and desiccated, I have to do something that's mine. Then I discovered I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell."
Writing also tapped into an intense and profound longing inside Perloff, which the characters in "Kinship" are also feeling.
"I think in some part of oneself, there's always longing for something deeper, something more, something transgressive, something spiritual — and it has nothing to do with anything rational. That's what Chekhov understood. So it can either get suppressed or it can get unleashed. And people do all kinds of crazy things, particularly in the middle of their lives when they've achieved a certain amount. They're sort of thinking, Is that all there is? What's next? What am I really meant to be, or do, or think, or want? And I can definitely relate to that."
Play by Carey Perloff
Directed by Jo Bonney
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival
At: Nikos Stage, Williamstown, July 15-25
Tickets: $55, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.