Guthrie theatergoers have had the chance to see two sides of Lisa Peterson this spring and summer.
Peterson, the playwright, co-wrote “An Iliad” with actor Denis O’Hare. The solo show was performed by Stephen Yoakam in the Guthrie studio. Peterson’s work as director is still on stage, with her sharply observed production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” in the proscenium theater.
“Clybourne” is Peterson’s fifth production at the Guthrie since 2003. By the numbers, this makes her one of Joe Dowling’s favorite directors. A self-proclaimed big fan of George Bernard Shaw, she has staged “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and “Major Barbara.” She indulged her fascination with the Greek classics (evident in her “Iliad”) in “Oedipus” and the American greats with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 2012.
Peterson is a two-time Obie winner, for “An Iliad” and Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” both at the New York Theatre Workshop. Her keen eye for new work led her to direct Tony Kushner’s “Slavs!” at Humana, in Baltimore and off-Broadway. Regionally, she works often in Chicago, Berkeley Rep, Los Angeles and La Jolla, Calif. Perhaps befitting her nomadic life as a freelancer, she and her partner, designer Rachel Hauck, have apartments in Los Angeles and New York.
The California native talked by phone recently from Orange County, where she was visiting family.
Q Were you aiming to do “Clybourne” at the Guthrie?
A No. When we finished “Cat,” Joe and I said, ‘Let’s do this again sooner rather than later.’ He gave me a call, and it worked. I had not seen the play. It’s hard for me to do things if I see a successful production, so that I’m not copying. I read it and got my impressions.
Q Which were?
A My first sense was that the first act was brighter, a period piece like “The Donna Reed Show.” The second act took place in this devastated room, with racial tension, and was heavier. But I read that Bruce sees the first act as a tragedy and the second act as a comedy. I took that to heart, and when I started to work in that direction, I realized the humor accumulates and then pays off. So I kept that idea in mind, to let Act One go dark and deep and let Act Two go fast, pop, light, bright.
Q The first act seems to be about Russ’ howl of agony.
A I felt it was shared. I was focused on Bev’s pain and how the two handle it differently. She’s project-oriented and can’t handle the fact that her husband is in pain. The first act sets up the absence of their son. You see the two alone and they are talking about the future. It was so painful, this couple looking into the maw of the future. I found it devastating every time I watched it.
Q I found the epilogue a dagger that goes deeper than the glib racial jokes.
A It’s an admission, a recognition that you can think you’re moving ahead from the abuses of the past, but you can’t. The past coexists with the present and the future. The fact that Bruce has the son in his uniform — he’s doing everything to make it personal and public. It wraps it back around to the thing that forced the house to be sold. It’s a ghost story that rips a hole in the fabric of American perfection.
Q Switch gears to “An Iliad.” How did that come about?
A It started for me in 2003, with the invasion of Baghdad. I remember the first Gulf War but this felt much bigger. I started reading as many war plays as possible and had a discussion with a friend who said she always starts with “The Iliad.” I had read it not as a piece of drama, but it originally would have been read as a solo performance. I wanted to work with an actor rather than a writer, so I went to Denis [O’Hare]. We started in 2005 and it wasn’t until 2010 that we were doing our first performance.
Q How did Steve Yoakam come to it?
A I had introduced it to Steve Yoakam before we did the first performance at Seattle Rep. He had been in “Oedipus” and “Major Barbara.” He read it and said he would like to do it but he couldn’t do it in Seattle. It was great he was available at the Guthrie. Steve was perfect casting for that part. “Iliad” really changed things for me. I’m writing a lot more and finding that to be eye-opening. Denis and I are writing a new piece loosely about the Bible.
Q What’s next for you at the Guthrie?
A I’m not in the coming season. I threw out half a dozen ideas of plays I’m interested in and Joe has plays he’s thinking about. There are so many variables in the planning of a season, but I do want to be in Joe’s final season.