Applause / “Thousand Pines” a play for our times in Westport
“I wanted to explore the different ways in which characters grieve,” said Matthew Greene, speaking by phone about his new play, “Thousand Pines,” having its world premiere at the end of Westport Playhouse’s season. Curious about the aftermath of deadly events in places like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland, Greene sets his piece in a purposely undesignated American location that could be Anytown USA.
Audiences who think they don’t want to hear any more about school shootings, should think again. Greene is writing neither a polemic nor a crime thriller nor a documentary but an exploration of communal experience and communal grief.
“A playwright’s final focus is on character and relationships and why people do the things they do,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that everything people do, even if it seems inexplicable from the outside, is always out of a sense of necessity. It boils down to a fundamental human need for connection, for a community that shares a tragedy together.”
“Thousand Pines” takes place at Thanksgiving, that most fraught of holidays with its often vitriolic family arguments. “It tells the story of families,” said Greene, “all trying to have a normal Thanksgiving in the wake of losing a child in a school shooting. Each family deals with loss in very different ways. It’s told in three acts, with the same cast portraying the three different families.”
Although gun control is part of the mix, Greene does not take sides. ”I try to not be judgmental but dive into why people do what they do. What interests me is telling a human story.”
Originally from California, Greene, 31, now lives in Harlem. “I studied theater at Brigham Young University, which is a little misleading because it makes it seem I’m a Mormon, which I’m not — anymore. I was. When I started BYU, I was very much a good Mormon boy. Now I’m a good non-Mormon boy.”
At BYU, he enrolled in a class given by writing professor and critic Eric Samuelson. “I wanted to be a theater performance major but I took his playwriting course for fun. One day he called me into his office and sat me down and said ‘Hey you’re good at this, you should do this.’ That changed my life. What was cool was there weren’t a lot of people writing plays so I got produced a lot. I was super lucky.”
For Greene, writing is a salvation. “When I’m troubled by something, getting worked up by any given topic, writing is how I deal with it,” he said. “I end up writing all these plays about upsetting, divisive topics.
“I have to sit down and write when I’m overwhelmed by something awful that’s happening. I tend to write about how larger social and political issues affect intimate relationships and how those bigger issues reverberate at home.”
Earlier works also focus on the synergy between the personal and the public. “Gregorian,” produced off-off-Broadway in 2016, tracks four generations of Armenian-American families
“Mormons really are very conservative about content in any entertainment they watch,” said Greene. “So usually any conversation is about trying to find things that are clean and family-friendly. They haven’t embraced the idea that the arts can be edifying.
Even during my religious days I found theater to be a really useful lab for growing human empathy. It’s the best tool we have as a society, the best way for us to become more empathetic. I think any good Christian would value that a lot more than they seem to. That was always paradoxical and confusing to me: why we didn’t always embrace the arts for the power they can have.”
For Greene, a way for the theater to stay alive and relevant is committing to new plays. Still, room must be made for bringing back great works of the past.
“So much of the Mormon theology is rejected at the end of that play,” said Greene. “We’re all feeling ‘Hey it would be good if an angel appeared to save us.’ That scene when Prior is embracing his own humanism and claiming his own experience is a message we all need. Let’s embrace our own humanity and the humanity of others around us. Rather than look for some kind of deliverance from the trouble we’re in, we’re actually going to be that deliverance in a million small ways.”
The 2018 season at the Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, opens May 29. “Thousand Pines” is Oct. 30-Nov. 17. For season and single tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org