Long before he won an Oscar for writing the movie Moonstruck, or the Pulitzer Prize (along with the Tony, the Obie and the Drama Desk Award) for the play Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley wrote The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, a one-act drama in which three dysfunctional characters thrust and parry. With words.
“They’re all dreamers,” observes Christopher Marshall, who’s directing the play for the Tampa Repertory Theatre (it opens Thursday at USF Theatre Center). “They’re all people who are looking for something. They’re looking for a reason to keep living. They may be unattractive people, but they’re also probably recognizable to many of us, or at least aspects of them.”
By “unattractive,” Marshall means that Tommy, his girlfriend Donna and her father (“Dad”) can be coarse and cruel, their back-and-forth dark and not always pleasant.
“That’s really what drew me to the play,” adds Marshall. “Nothing’s really neatly tied up with a bow. It’s pretty messy, and the language is pretty ugly, but it’s real.”
Jim Sorensen, who plays Dad, is a veteran bay area actor, and he believes The Dreamer Examines His Pillow – which co-stars Ar’Darius Stewart and Anna Roman – might be the most intense play he’s ever been a part of. “And Anna and Ar’Darius are two of the most stunning actors I’ve ever seen live onstage,” Sorensen says. “You’re just going to be sucked into the two of them. And I flatter myself to think that I can hold the stage with them.”
As for their characters, “Tommy is the navel gazer, and in some ways he’s Shanley’s stand-in for examining the foibles of youth,” Sorensen says. “And Dad is an ex-artist who’s discovered a lot of philosophy. Donna is kind of the catalyst between them.
“After Dad lost his wife he gave up painting, and he basically gave up people. In one of my favorite lines from the show, Dad says to his daughter ‘If you want to go in a straight line, give up people. People are what zig-zag.’ Shanley just finds a way to very colloquially espouse this philosophy.”
Still, he insists, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is “a dark comedy, in the vein of Shameless when it was a little more serious and less slap-sticky.”
Shanley is a master of realistic – and sometimes heart-piercing – dialogue. “He writes a lot about his own lack of courage,” Marshall says. “And that’s something that he explores in this play.
“But I find that this language is absolutely fearless. And his words are incredibly poetic and powerful, in a way that I think a lot of plays and films are not.”
For Sorensen, the free-flowing language is almost Shakespearean in its beauty. “I think you’re doing yourself more of a service if you just let the language wash over you a little bit, rather than try to pick out every single nuance, because the vernacular is so steeped in a New York/Brooklyn kind of a feel, but also in Shanley’s particular idiom – a half ‘of the gutter,’ half poetic style.”
Tampa Rep was created by the late C. David Frankel in 2011 to honor and produce “classical American theater,” says Marshall.
“Which I think is a pretty broad definition. And when David brought me into the board, he said ‘We’re looking to re-define what that definition is.’”
Rather than stick to the works of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and other “classical” 20th century playwrights, the company widened its lens.
“The fabric of American theater is incredibly rich,” Marshall believes. “And with plays like this, we’re asking ‘What are the plays that define who we really are?’
“I think they’re the plays that are about language, plays that are about real people confronting real struggles … at the heart of it, that’s what we seek to do. We seek to bring people into that room and include them in these incredibly deep and rich conversations.”
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow details and tickets here.