'We All Fall Down'... with Laughter! :: Lila Rose Kaplan on Her New Comedy at the Huntington

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday December 31, 2019

In an age when anti-Semitism is skyrocketing - far too often, with tragic results - and "Star Wars" fans get twisted up over the idea of a female protagonist, it's refreshing to see a playwright set a course against the darker currents of the times and tell stories that shrug aside easy polemics. It's even better when those stories opt for heart over homilies, and humor over talking points or stereotypes.

Such is the case with Lila Rose Kaplan's "We All Fall Down," a play in which an almost all-female cast (plus one male character) gather in a family home to celebrate a Seder - even though those invited are, by and large, not particularly religious or even very familiar with the rites of the traditional Passover celebration.

Kaplan presents us with the stagecraft version of a box of brightly hued Crayolas, her characters large than life and strong in their individual colors. Linda, a psychologist, bestselling author, and the matriarch of this clan, has never been observant, and it's a mystery as to why she's so intent on hosting a Seder. Linda's husband, Saul, is as bright as Linda, but being newly retired he might have slightly lost his bearings. Daughters Sammi and Ariel are almost polar opposites, the former having settled into a stable professional career and the latter being a free spirit whose latest not-quite-vocation is as a yoga teacher.

Enter the old friends and extended family: Esther, Linda's energetic and ambitious young assistant, dances through the family's minefield of in-jokes and unresolved conflicts to keep the dinner (and her boss) on track, while Saul's sister Nan and longtime neighbor Beverly represent another diametrically opposed duo - Nan being a lawyer, a little edgy and objective-oriented, while Beverly is sweet, unfocused, and given to nervous chatter.

The action takes place in a house where many of the rooms are visible to the audience and there's often action happening in two or more locales. This is truly a buzzing little universe where every element is on its own trajectory, and when objects (and personae) collide, serendipity and conflict can arise in equal measure.

Lila Rose Kaplan chatted with EDGE about her fascinating with families (especially sisters), her earlier works (including science-based plays "Entangled" and "Biography of a Constellation," the latter being about the female mathematicians who worked for the Harvard observatory in an era when women were often denied technical jobs and their contributions - when women made them despite the artificial obstacles men placed in their way - were often overlooked), and her one and future projects.

EDGE: Several of your plays involve faith traditions of various kinds — Wicca in "The Weird," Christianity in "Jesus Girls," and now Judaism in "We All Fall Down." Is faith a part of our life and/or your creative process?

Lila Rose Kaplan: That's a great question. You know, I'm really fascinated by faith; I grew up in a house much like the house in "We All Fall Down," sort of a culturally Jewish intellectual house, but the woman who took care of me when my parents were at work was a really devout Christian, so I kind of grew up with these two very different looks at religion. Daphne was her name; I think her faith got passed to me even without me being particularly a religious theater person.

So, I'm very inspired by faith. I think faith rituals bring people together, regardless of what you actually believe; that's what the play is largely about. And I think doing anything in life — like writing a play, having a marriage, having a child — requires a huge amount of faith. I think there's a way in which all of us are engaging with faith all of the time, whether or not we think of ourselves as religious, or believing in God.

So I think faith is a part of my life, and definitely part of my writing process. You know, I've been working on this play for almost ten years, on and off, and now it's having a huge, beautiful production. If you had told me that ten years ago, it would have been such wonderful news to get! It's really [a matter of] persistence and diligence and rigor, but also wonder and belief and faith when you're going after anything that you love.

EDGE: This play has so many elements that seem like major topics all on their own: The Black Plague; Passover Seder; family and history... how did these all come together in your mind and spark a play?

Lila Rose Kaplan: I think everything we write has some element of ourselves and our history in it, and this play is definitely inspired by an actual Seder I went to at my parents' house. It's not an autobiographical play — everybody is changed from the actual people in my life — but there was this night where a number of us gathered and, in my mind, no one who was actually Jewish came to this Seder. We were all culturally Jewish, or grew up Jewish and then rejected it, but there wasn't really anyone there who really know how to do a Seder right, [so to speak]. My now-husband, then-boyfriend, who is more religious, was supposed to come, but then he couldn't because his grandma was sick, and someone else was supposed to come... all the people who might have known anything weren't there, and yet we still managed to muddle through and make something. I was frustrated at times but also, by the end of the night, moved that these people had come together and performed this ritual.

I think it's in those times when people come together to make a holiday, or a ritual, or a gathering — a play can do something similar, like a gathering can make a communal activity [possible] and brings out, I think, what's most alive in everyone. That's how you end up with this sort of group of people with all of these different things going at full blast. And we're walking right into the holiday season right now, so I think everybody is very aware that the holidays tend to have that effect: Everything sort of gets the volume turned up under it. We've been marketing the play as a good way to laugh off the holidays!


Lila Rose Kaplan: I think everyone needs that. I used to experience it more as a kid, and now I'm a parent myself, so I can see both sides of that. There's something, particularly, about intergenerational gatherings. I wish we had more stories that were intergenerational; I think that a lot of the biggest moments in life are [intergenerational], and I think that a lot of the things we see [in popular media] are about people the same age grappling with something. I'm always more interested in adding more dimensions to those conversations.

EDGE: I like the intergenerational aspect of "We All Fall Down," and it feels like you've tied into that with the idea of looking into the whole house all at once, to see how the different generations of the family connect with each other. It feels like there's a parallel between looking at a family in this X-ray sort of way, and looking back at history from our contemporary perspective.

Lila Rose Kaplan: It's funny, as you're talking I'm looking at this book I picked up today called "These Truths," by Jill Lepore, that was just recommended to me for this play. It's an "ambitious one-volume American history," so it's like the history of the country in one big book. She's looking at the promises that made America: The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, these ideas of what the country was supposed to be. How we've lived up to them, and how we haven't; who's been included in the promises, and who hasn't... This idea of including everyone's experience in a story, that's what I think a good play is. That's what empathy is; seeing things in terms of different people's point of view, and whether it's one night at a theater or hundreds of thousands of years of ritual coming to mean different things to different families...

I love the conversation between Bev and Linda and Nan about what Passover is, and what Easter is, and what the pagan rituals were, and how Linda kind of wants it all to be the same thing. And it's very important to the other women that it's not all the same thing! I think there's something that we gravitate toward, about making meaning in the ways that make sense to us. I love that about the play — everyone is out to have a meaningful night in a way that makes sense to them. Obviously, a lot of sparks fly out of that, but also there's a lot of love by the end of the night.

EDGE In addition to the intergenerational dynamics in the play, there's some great stuff between the sisters. It seems like sisters are a big part of your work. "Entangled" is about twin sisters; "Catching Flight" is also about sisters. What is it about the sisterly bond that holds such a fascination?

Lila Rose Kaplan: Well, I have a sister, and she is a very big part of my life. I think it's such a unique and powerful, and sometimes potent, relationship — not just sisters, but siblings in general. [A sibling is] the other person who's from your origin story, right? This other person who was actually in that myth that began you. The stories of what happened to us make us who we are, and someone else who knows those stories — or, who has their own versions of those stories, as is usually the case, right? We grew up in the same family, but we have different parents.

No one knows you like a sibling; no one sat with you in the back of the car for all of those long trips and knows what you were like when you were having your best and worst moments of childhood. It's such an incredible way to look at that nexus of friendship and family that is sisterhood.

I'm really moved by sibling stories. There's something about the history there, and the love, and the struggle — and the fact that you don't choose your siblings, and you have to do something with them, however you get along. I'm lucky; my sister and I really get along.

EDGE: Wikipedia calls you a "feminist playwright," and it's true you have written a lot about female characters, female historical figures such as Annie Jump Cannon, an early female astronomer [in the play "Biography of a Constellation"]. Would you say there's something in the story of women that has been overlooked and needs to be addressed?

Lila Rose Kaplan: Oh, definitely. I like to say my plays shine light on the stories we don't tell about women. And I think when I was first starting out it was people like Annie Jump Cannon, actual historical figures that we don't really know their stories [that I was attracted to]. But as I've evolved as a writer, I've become very interested in looking at different kinds of women. So many of the stories we hear growing up are about men. Usually white men. Usually straight white men. You know?


Lila Rose Kaplan: And I think we tell stories and receive stories to get better at being human, so we need more stories that include more kinds of people. There's the amazing Toni Morrison quote - Toni Morrison didn't start writing novels until she was 39, which I find quite inspiring. She said, "I couldn't find the books I wanted to read on the shelf, so I decided to write them." And what she meant was she couldn't find books about young African American women, which is the hardest experience in the world, and so she decided to create them. And thank God she did, because the world really needs her books.

I feel like I have taken that advice very personally, and very seriously. I wrote a play called "The Villains Supper Club," about a world run by supervillains, and the only superhero left is also a new mom. It's a really fun play! It's a play that looks at that first year of being a mom, and how unspoken the heroism is of that first year. The play starts with her kicking all the bad guys with her cape and then, two minutes later, she's pumping in her cape in the phone booth. I'm looking at the ways that we don't really see new mothers as people. I wrote that after the beginning of my being a mom.

This play is about six women and one man, and it's a lot of different women on stage. In other plays, probably only one or two women would be on stage. I'm really interested in getting more nuanced portrayals of women into the theater and into the zeitgeist. My daughter is four and a half right now, and I'm trying to get books for her that are about women or about people from different races, or different backgrounds, or different sexualities, so I think the more kinds of stories you know, the more you're actually going to be in the world, and have empathy for everyone in the world.

EDGE: It's not just new mothers who are superheroes, it's mothers of any age...

Lila Rose Kaplan: Oh my god. I know!

EDGE: In this play, too, it's the mother, Linda, who is doing the really hard work, in a way — no one really knows at first what she's up to, or why she's insisting on having a Seder, but then it becomes clear what an amazing thing she's doing.

Lila Rose Kaplan: Yeah — I mean, without giving too much away, I think Linda is such a fabulous character, and it's exciting to find out what she has up her sleeve and learn there's more to her than you might initially think.

EDGE: She's definitely a fun character.

Lila Rose Kaplan: She really is! They are having a lot of fun with all of her costumes.

EDGE: Your play "Entangled" came up a moment ago, and I love your idea of exploring abstruse physics concepts through your characters and their relationships — especially since relationships are kind of like physics in that they really create the world for us, in a way, and yet they can be very mystifying. Was it tough to write "Entangled," or "Biography of a Constellation," or any of your other science-themed plays, and work out how to incorporate the science?

Lila Rose Kaplan: You know, this is how my brain works — I have a kind of metaphorical art/science brain. I gravitate toward metaphor. I mean, in "We All Fall Down," the Seder becomes the metaphor, but in my earlier plays, like "Entangled" and "Biography of a Constellation," I loved writing about science. I love science and theater. And I'm married to a marine biologist; every night at our house is like a science play.


Lila Rose Kaplan: With "Entangled," it was really fun because I got this fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics to be their playwright in residence for the year. And I think they had a journalist-in-residence fellowship, but with the rate that newspapers are declining they couldn't get science writers to come live there for a year, so they opened it up to all kinds of writers, so I got it. I spent this kind of mind-opening year of meeting all these different kinds of physicists... and the place is kind of magical and strange. It has bulletin boards in every single hallway, and people from all over the world arguing and writing on the boards, and there was teatime... it was out of time, this place.

I was really interested in [the phenomenon of] entanglement. I had a commission that year to write a play, so I wrote this play about a school for twins — continuing my sibling interest from before — and kind of used this idea of twins to kind of explore and illustrate this idea of entanglement, from both a physics point of view and more of an emotional point of view. Entanglement is this idea that two particles can stay connected and keep affecting each other even if they are very far apart. I think in my most romantic heart of hearts that's true of people, as well, whether it be siblings, or romantic partners, or parent and child. There's some way that connection remains intact, even if you're across the country, or across the world, or across the galaxy.

So, in that play, the kids are all twins in the school and then the headmistress is a twin, as well, and her long-lost, estranged twin comes back to teach physics at the school and to try to work things out between the two of them. What's fun about the play is that the two grown-up twins are both played by the same actor, so it's a really fun part for a phenomenal actor to be both of these sisters.

And with "Constellation," there were these women who were way ahead of their time, basically being astronomers before they were allowed to be astronomers. There's something so modern about that, but also something so mythic to the idea of the three women, the Fates, spinning everything.

I see metaphor in science very easily, and it makes science more acceptable to the humanities-minded people, and I think it makes theater more inviting to science-minded people. It's a great way to open up the conversation in many dimensions. My husband and I actually teach a class called "Storytelling for Scientists," where we go and work with scientists on how to use storytelling principles and theater principles to be more engaging and more [understandable] speakers for audiences that aren't necessarily expert in [the scientists' field of study]. I think a lot about how science and art can work together.

EDGE: I wonder if you might someday write a play for the Central Square Theater, where they do a lot of science-themed plays, and also a lot of plays about the female perspective.

Lila Rose Kaplan: I know, yeah! Actually, "Biography of a Constellation" had a reading there, years ago, before I lived here. I had won the National Science in Playwriting Award, and part of the prize was getting a reading at Central Square. So, I got a reading there when I was still living in California, and then we moved here and we lived just down the street [from the theater]... I said, "I think I've been here before!"

EDGE: What other new projects are you working on?

Lila Rose Kaplan: I have a ton of projects. I have a new play called about a fertility goddess who retires because of the state of the world and how many women and trees are getting destroyed by men. When a fertility goddess stops working, everything starts to wilt and eventually dies, because fertility goddesses take care of new babies and also take care of the planet staying well. So her assistant sends her to a spa for the day to get her to change her mind, and while she's at the spa all of these different gods and people come to see her to try to get her not to end the world. It's really fun — it's kind of like "Midsommar" meets Mel Brooks.... meets me!


Lila Rose Kaplan: We did a workshop of it at the Huntington this summer, and I'm really proud of it, and really excited about it. It feels like a collision of my love of farce and my love of feminism kind of in one heartfelt play.

And I'm also just beginning a new musical for young people with a local singer-songwriter named Vanessa Trien. I love her stuff. We're writing on a musical about a young woman named Saga who pulled a sword out of a lake in Sweden a couple of years ago — we saw that in the news. It's like a tiny version of King Arthur, except she's an eight-year-old girl in Sweden! I'm combining that magical beginning of the story with the incredible work of Greta Thunberg, and this idea that young people are looking more clearly at climate change than a lot of us are. We're playing with the idea of a Lady Arthur who will come and help us save the planet.

"We All Fall Down" plays Jan. 10 - Feb. 15 at the Huntington Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2019-2020/we-all-fall-down/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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