Eric Conger, translator of plays by Molière and Feydeau, narrator, actor in over 50 professional productions—including wide-ranging roles, from Caliban, the troubled subhuman in THE TEMPEST, to Orsino, the handsome, powerful nobleman and lovesick bachelor in Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT—is now leaving his mark as a successful new American playwright, whose four produced plays include BEAUTIFUL BOY, the story of a young man’s search for his birth parents.
We caught up with Eric to find out more about BEAUTIFUL BOY, which just had its world premier production at The Walnut Street Theatre.
Henrik Eger: What motivated you to write this powerful, deeply moving, and thought-provoking play? Were you adopted at birth, or were you a parent who was found by your child?
Eric Conger: The latter. My daughter found me when she was thirty-one. She was the product of an affair between two young people in the theatre in the late sixties. As marriage was not realistic, and as the young woman’s parents were devout Catholics, abortion did not seem to be an option. She was sent to Canada with an alibi for the duration of her pregnancy. After the initial discovery of the pregnancy, I was cut out of the picture. The more time went by, the more I suspected that the pregnancy was terminated. Yet, I was not totally surprised to receive an email in 1999 that my daughter would like to meet me.
HE: How did you feel when you were cut loose by the young woman and her family?
EC: To be honest, as a young and callow man, I was happy to be so. I was nowhere near ready to be married and, certainly, it would have been disastrous had we done it.
HE: How did your daughter find out who her parents were and how did she go about it?
EC: After seven years and the services of a professional searcher, she was about to give up, when her stepfather located the name of the birthmother. How, he wouldn’t say, and to this day it is a mystery, but he somehow got a look at the original birth certificate or got a friend to. It was just a matter of days before the birthmother was located and contacted, then me shortly after.
HE: That’s an extraordinary journey, which I see reflected in your play. How did you respond to your daughter’s sudden entry into your life?
EC: I was found at a time when my life was fairly settled, and I had two children with the woman I married. Being found by my grown daughter was certainly a huge event in our lives, but we managed to accommodate her and gradually introduce her to other relatives, who have embraced her with love.
HE: How did you feel when your daughter finally managed to contact her birth mother, and then you—after 31 years?
EC: Strangely peaceful. I knew that I could help heal a wound that had probably been festering for some time. I flew to Canada to meet her and it was very emotional.
The birthmother was another story. Though she eventually relented and agreed to meet her, she was initially reluctant because it was all extremely difficult for her. From being sent away under cover of a lie, to the shame of an out-of-wedlock birth, to the agony of surrendering a child to strangers, the damage to her was considerable. She is gradually warming to the situation, but the scars are deep and lasting. And she is understandably resentful of me.
HE: How has this event affected you as a writer?
EC: It was certainly a story. But I didn’t want to invade my daughter’s privacy, so when creating the play, I used a male lead instead of a female. Though BEAUTIFUL BOY is not her journey, it does focus on the anomie, a feeling of disconnectedness of an adopted person, and the injustice of the sealed records laws. It’s a subject very much in the zeitgeist, especially with the current success of the film, PHILOMENA, and new reform proposals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
HE: How did you then prepare yourself to write a play about the complexity of being an adopted child and the difficulty of being a birthparent?
EC: I acted on the stage and TV for twenty years before putting pen to paper. It was another ten before I began to take it seriously. Writers like drama. This situation was dramatic.
After extensive reading about adoption, adoptees, the laws, and the Catholic Church’s interest therein, and several memoirs of nuns who came of age in the fifties and sixties, I had a good first draft after nine months. BEAUTIFUL BOY, my fourth play, was written somewhat more quickly than the others. It took about a year to create a draft that I was pleased enough with to present publicly. It was another six months of refinement.
It seemed clear to me that [the play] had to be about search and reunion, and that each of those elements should be dramatized. So I constructed a simple “quest” play, where the hero leaves home in search of himself, meets demons and prophets along the way, and finally faces the unknown, which, in this case, is his mother. Most of the events in the play actually happened to one person or another. I kept good notes and could go back and find an anecdote that was suitable to a given point in the journey. There were so many to choose from.
HE: How did others respond to your evolving play?
EC: There were three professional readings at various venues in New York and New Jersey (both Lois Smith and Frances Sternhagen read the part of the Sister), during which the Walnut decided to option it. At that point it felt tight and ready to go.
One of the best examples of how a revision came to be arose from a comment I got from an audience member at a reading about the final monologue of the lead, Bill. When asked by the nun if he was “taken care of,” if he “was loved,” I at first had him reply sarcastically, not wanting her to get off the hook so easily. But then the audience member said, “What if he pivots in the middle of that speech and begins speaking sincerely? If he realizes that he did have a good life with his adoptive parents and only now realizes it?” I immediately saw how beautiful that suggestion was, and took it. If any moment in the play grabs us, it’s that one.
HE: Tell us more about your choice of director, and the impact of the music on your play.
EC: It’s a tribute to the [Walnut’s] artistic director, Bernard Havard, that rather than assign a director to the project, he let me choose from a small group. I liked the vibe I got from David Stradley, artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, when I read his resume. I appreciated the interest he showed during our phone conversation, so I felt he would be good—and he was, very much so. There were some refinements, clarifications, and deletions once the rehearsal process started, as there always are with new work, but we were 98% solid on the first rehearsal.
The music, which is wonderfully evocative and helps both tell the story and propel the show forward, was written by Elizabeth Atkinson, someone previously unknown to me. But theatre is a collaboration, and other influences are welcome and necessary. I heard the compositions on her website and trusted that she understood the play and would find the right sound for it, which she did. I am most grateful to the Walnut for not only producing it, but allocating extra resources for video scenery and original music.
HE: Are there any plans of inviting the daughter who searched for you and her birthmother to see your play?
EC: My daughter will fly in for the final weekend. The cast will be most interested to meet her, to say the least. The birthmother is still fragile and would not wish to attend, I’m sure, so neither our daughter nor I have encouraged her to come.
HE: What are the next steps that you want to take with Beautiful Boy?
EC: It would be great if an adoption organization or a person who likes the play and feels strongly about bringing justice to the adoption process would fund a workshop in New York. If I had $20,000 – $25,000, I could import the entire Walnut cast and present it as a backers’ audition in Manhattan, and be able to showcase it to NYC producers. The chance of getting a production would be high.