How Do You Write Plays For a Divided Country? Listen Carefully.

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Growing up, the playwright Will Arbery sat at the family dinner table, listening carefully to the many distinct voices that surrounded him. There were eight children — seven sisters and him, the only boy. Joan, the oldest sibling, debated their professor parents about the Bible, Heidegger or Machiavelli. Lucia told stories of the ghosts she’d seen. Monica, the youngest, talked and sang in strange voices, making everyone laugh. Julia could quiet everyone, demanding they pay attention as she toasted one of them or an absent friend.

At the head of the table, their parents held court on theology and politics. Arbery’s father, Glenn, was raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism at 26, a choice he attributes partly to reading Flannery O’Connor. He is now the president of Wyoming Catholic College — a private liberal-arts institution that bans the use of cellphones on campus and prioritizes the Great Books curriculum alongside wilderness and horsemanship skills. Arbery’s mother, Virginia, also serves at the college as an associate professor of humanities. The household often hosted other conservative scholars and former students, inviting them to add their voices to the familial fray.

“And I was just sitting there,” Arbery told me. “Young and quiet and shy but listening very closely.” He felt his position in this family, whom he describes as having “probably a genetic predisposition for language,” was to hold all the voices with their differing perspectives in his mind, giving each equal weight.

When this role exhausted him, he would retreat to his room and listen to his toys talk. He liked discarded playthings best, the ripped and limbless stuffed animals he found in other people’s trash or on the street. He would arrange them, careful to give each their own space on the bed, check in, and “ask them about their hearts.” At night he lay among the broken toys and stared at the ceiling, imagining epic narratives unfolding there. These tales did not involve battles or adventures at sea but were instead set at dinner tables in full, boisterous homes.

Arbery’s childhood bed was his first stage, where his earliest creative self emerged, but it was also a space of deep embarrassment: He wet the bed nightly until he was nearly 14. “During the day I was balancing all these wildly different perspectives and feeling very overwhelmed by all of them,” Arbery explained in a master class given through Playwrights Horizons, “but I was also at night having to practice this compassion for myself, because I was literally soaking in shame and humiliation.”

There is, in this childhood scene, a guide to understanding much of Arbery’s work — his plays, including “Plano,” “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and “Corsicana,” are among the most formally complex and deeply humane on the American stage. Imagine a coordinate plane, where the horizontal x-axis is Arbery’s bed — above the line, creation, and below it, shame. The vertical y-axis is the bedroom door, on one side noise, density, debate, ideas; on the other, quiet, space, solitude, privacy. Arbery’s plays and his characters roam this coordinate plane in all directions, occupying many quadrants at once. “I think all of these things added up to a sort of call to be as nonjudgmental as possible,” Arbery told his class, “and to recognize that all of us have vulnerable, scary, painful things that we carry in our body. And all of us choose, or don’t choose, to move in the world in a certain way.”

Rachel Sachnoff, left, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine from Will Arbery’s play “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing.”Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

This capacity to carry and give room to wide-ranging viewpoints, even ones he may personally struggle with and oppose, is central to Arbery’s “Heroes” which was one of the most lauded plays of 2019 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Set in 2017, one week after the Charlottesville riots, “Heroes” spans a single summer night in which four friends gather to celebrate their former mentor, who has just been inaugurated as president of Transfiguration College, a fictional Catholic school in Wyoming. As the boozy night wears on, the characters — all of whom have voted for Trump, albeit with varying levels of distaste — debate their roles and responsibilities in a secular society, grappling with ideas from Heidegger and Arendt as well as contemporary conservative thinkers.

Frank Rich, an executive producer of HBO’s “Succession,” told me that when he saw “Heroes” it struck him as something utterly new: presenting “a milieu that has really never been dramatized before at the high end of theater or television.” Rich successfully pitched HBO and the showrunner Jesse Armstrong on the idea of Arbery joining the writers’ room; he consulted on Season 3 and wrote for Season 4. “We want our characters to be fully realized as people,” Rich says. “You wouldn’t want to stay with them for four seasons if you feel like they’re cartoons. And a writer like Will is incapable of writing that way.”

“Heroes” won praise from critics across a wide political spectrum. Jesse Green wrote in The New York Times that it “explores the lives and ideas of conservatives with affection, understanding and deep knowledge — if not, ultimately, approval.” The hosts of “Know Your Enemy,” a podcast produced by the leftist Dissent Magazine, noted that Arbery “writes from a place of deep love and withering scrutiny,” and called “Heroes” a “remarkable play” that displays sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, and love. The conservative author Rod Dreher, whose book “The Benedict Option” is discussed in “Heroes,” wrote in The American Conservative, “Decades from now, if social historians wonder what it was like to be an American conservative in this tumultuous era, they will consult Will Arbery’s breathtaking new play.”

The near-universal embrace of “Heroes” — especially in a particularly bitter and divisive political climate — felt like a magic trick. The key is Arbery’s ear. He is one of the theater’s greatest listeners, able to hear and reproduce the subtle and deeply specific ways individuals reveal themselves and their relationships to others with language. Through this lens, “Heroes” becomes as much about the state of American conservatism as it is the feeling of sitting outside on a warm summer evening, drinking too much, talking late into the night with friends, all of whom struggle to regain a sense of closeness they’ve lost.

Arbery’s plays explore complex subject matter and feature people who are not often prioritized as dramatic subjects: Trump voters, people with disabilities and — in his current play, “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,” which is running at the Pershing Square Signature Center until Dec. 18 — melancholy municipal workers. His devotion to specific language compels his audience to shed preconceived narratives about whom they’re shown onstage. His characters speak — as we all do — from their own linguistic universe, each one rich with intonation, strange phrases, irregular cadences, repetitions, patterns, habitual errors. This specificity urges recognition: If his characters can capture ours, we’ll go anywhere with them, including places that make us feel anger, vulnerability and grief. “Evanston” asks us to follow four characters deep into their distinct forms of sadness. “There are no ‘people’ in Will’s plays,” Danya Taymor, the play’s director, told me. “Only these people.”

“Evanston” emerged from a particularly terrible year in Arbery’s life. He spent most of 2012 with the sensation of two fingers pressing down on his throat, choking him. He told me the story in starts and stops, while we sat together on a sunny day in a Brooklyn cafe. He paused often to ask if he could get me something, more coffee, more water, and was I hungry? Each time I declined, he looked incrementally more trapped in the awareness that he was currently expected to talk more than listen. I soon became accustomed to Arbery’s penchant for long silences and expressions of agony. He has a habit of digging his hands under his glasses, pushing them up and nearly off his head, clenching his fists against his eyes. This gesture is usually accompanied by a mid-pitch moan.

A decade ago, he told me, when he was 22 and had just moved to New York, he was broke and haunted by voices that droned on and on in his mind, asking him to account for what he was doing with his life. Sometimes the voices were met and muted by an “ecstatic desire to embrace everyone.” He’d find himself in a busy shop or on a crowded train and would feel engulfed in an unbearable love for everyone he saw. He sensed this love might cause him to simply disappear, to fuse and become one with everyone else. “It was a very miserable time in my life,” he told me. “I was probably mentally ill.”

Arbery and Sachnoff circa 2012 on break from rehearsal in Brooklyn.Credit…From Will Arbery

One night, sitting on his kitchen floor in Flatbush, he listened to one of his roommates, Rachel Sachnoff, a friend from Kenyon College, speak anxiously about her own creative future. Sachnoff was beginning to wonder if acting were a mistake, and if there were something out there she might like more. Listening to her, Arbery experienced a jolt of certainty: He had known Sachnoff was a great actress well before this moment, one the world needed to see, but this conversation crystallized that feeling. He simply had to write successful plays she could star in. His belief in her gave rise to his own steadying belief.

He started applying to every playwriting workshop, competition or fellowship that he could find, and writing constantly. He put up his plays wherever he could, occasionally paying for access to a stage out of his own pocket if there were no other options. He cast his friends in every role, also recruiting them to help with music, direction, set design. He needed a refrigerator as a prop for a one-night-only staged reading of his play “Wheelchair,” and so he borrowed his roommate’s mini-fridge without asking, lugged it to Manhattan, then later faced his wrath when he returned home with it in the middle of the night.

During this feverish time, in January 2014, he started writing bits of scenes for “Evanston,” which is being staged almost exactly 10 years after that night on the kitchen floor. Sachnoff, who has acted in other Arbery plays in the intervening years, stars in one of the four lead roles. “Evanston” is set in the titular Illinois suburb over the course of three winters and focuses on the municipal workers Peter (Jeb Kreager) and Basil (Ken Leung), who salt the roads after snowstorms, as well as their boss, Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and her daughter, Jane Jr. (Sachnoff). The play takes layers as its primary subject — both the literal layers of salt on a treacherous, icy road and the abstract ones between what people say and what they feel. The four characters, frozen in their separate modes of unhappiness, try to thaw. They each face devastating consequences when they discover that the protective boundaries they’ve built up are too thick or too thin. Jane Jr.’s dialogue bears aspects of Sachnoff’s personality, her verbal tics and speech habits, like a tendency to muddy a thought by ending her sentences with a dismissive “and stuff like that” or to say, “I have no possible idea,” a phrase that came from an anecdote, mutated into an inside joke, and then — over years of friendship and innumerable hours of conversation — shifted further until it was, Arbery told me, “just a part of how we talk to each other.” When Sachnoff first read the play and perceived Jane Jr.’s odd sense of humor and strange sensibilities, she tried to figure out a way to make the character more accessible. Arbery told her no, that he didn’t want her to worry about who would understand it, that he wanted her to focus on the experience of truly living onstage.

In “Evanston,” Peter and Basil spend all their working hours together in a truck. When it is time to commence the day’s labor, one will say to the other “butta time, supper time” a seemingly nonsense string of utterances, the exact meaning of which is never made explicit. These expressions, when said by characters who spend their working lives in near-constant proximity to each other, seem to emerge from oft-repeated clichés like “this job is my bread and butter” or “time to put dinner on the table” that over time evolve, or perhaps dissolve. Closeness erodes formal language, imbues utterances with private meaning. These moments of dialogue intentionally resist literal interpretation, instead transmitting the feeling of life passing in the presence of another — life spent seeing, thinking and speaking with others.

Arbery at rehearsals for his new play, “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing.” Credit…Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

One of the people Arbery holds closest is Julia, his sister. He keeps a picture of her as a baby perched on his father’s shoulders as the home screen on his laptop. “It centers me,” he says. “It brings me peace, and it also feels like something to constantly be reaching toward.” His relationship with Julia, who is two years older and has Down syndrome, inspired his play “Corsicana,” staged this summer at Playwrights Horizons.

Set in the small Texas town for which it is named, “Corsicana” begins with Ginny — played in its recent production by Jamie Brewer, who also has Down syndrome — telling her brother Christopher, “I can’t find my heart.” The two live together and are grieving the recent loss of their mother. Christopher (Will Dagger) turns to a close family friend, Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), who suggests that her artist friend Lot (Harold Surratt), a recluse stuck in his own grief, spend some time with Ginny. Lot and Ginny share a love of music, and try to write a song together. The structure of the play moves forward from this point like a song sung in a round by four voices, staggered but searching for a kind of harmony.

Sitting in the audience for “Corsicana” in June, waiting for the play to begin, I fought feelings of dread and skepticism. As a disabled woman, I long to see disabled characters written with an attentiveness to the full range of their humanity, but it is more common for disability to be used as a mere tool to either inspire the able-bodied or to provoke in them feelings of pity and fear. When disabled characters are killed off — as they often are — their deaths create release for their able-bodied counterparts, allowing them to find more meaning in their realer, fuller lives. Think of Beth in “Little Women,” Jude in “A Little Life,” Lydia in “Manhattan Beach,” Owen Meany, Lennie Small. Or the play “Cost of Living,” recently on Broadway, which literally strips naked its two disabled leads (to be bathed by their able-bodied aides) but leaves their interiority profoundly clothed. The play’s disabled characters are not given the lengthy monologues or complex back stories of their able-bodied counterparts, nor opportunities to be alone onstage, seen as autonomous selves — the one significant exception ending with near-fatal results. Instead, they are kept in a direct and constant relationship to their able-bodied caregivers, who end the play without them after one dies and the other is lightly villainized and dismissed.

Jamie Brewer, left, and Deirdre O’Connell in the play “Corsicana” at Playwrights Horizons.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Arbery’s bond with Julia makes him acutely aware of such reductive impulses. “Julia often gets pigeonholed,” Arbery wrote in the program note for “Corsicana.” “Either as angelic or pitiable, limited or blessed. People tend to not consider her depression, desire, manipulation, ambivalence, sexuality.”

With Ginny, Arbery created a person with expansive emotions: grief, wonder, romantic love. Ginny has agency, which she uses to enact care (she’s a loving sister, able to intuit her brother’s emotion more directly than he can) and commotion (she often articulates what another character has left unsaid). In the play’s most tense and striking scene, Ginny tells Lot she loves him — it’s both a provocation and an attempt at increased connection. The moment causes Lot to have a panic attack, which sends him away from the audience and into a shadow fallen over the darkest place on the stage. Eventually, he’s able to overcome his need to withdraw from the group, and the play ends — in contrast to “Cost of Living” — with all of its characters together, singing a song, equal but idiosyncratic participants in a moment of creation.

“Corsicana” is not the first time Arbery has included disability themes and disabled actors in his work. He wrote the role of Gordon in “Wheelchair” (2016) specifically for the actor, activist and educator Matthew S. Joffe, who has Moebius syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that affects nerve function in the face. Joffe’s face is partially paralyzed, leaving his lips unable to move or close. “Eating is off the grid, stylistically,” he joked to me when we spoke on the phone. When some people look at him, Joffe explained, he can see them experiencing cognitive dissonance, reaching for stereotypical narratives to apply to him. “People feel ill-equipped to be around people with disabilities. It’s almost as if they don’t know what to do. If you or I were normal, whatever the hell that means, people would approach us differently.” Rather than ask him questions directly about what they see when they look at him, people “somehow construct the notion that we’re alien — they’re seeing us in an alien form.” As a kid, his peers treated Joffe as if he had a contagious disease and an intention to pass it on to them. For me, my short stature and distinct side-to-side gait cause some people to treat me as if I’m a weak and precarious child in need of protection or scolding.

“Wheelchair” is about alienated people, and the attempts they make to hear and be heard authentically. Set in a rundown studio apartment, the play centers on Gordon, who is about to be evicted by his niece Sasha (another role written for and performed by Sachnoff) and is giving all his furniture away to 19-year-old Devon. Each character is deeply uncertain of their relationship to the others and shows this uncertainty through fractured and opaque communication. A little over halfway through, the play takes a fantastic turn, dispatching its human characters and leaving us to listen as the objects they leave behind — a broken chair, an oscillating fan, a table, a mini-fridge — begin to talk to one another. There’s a sense in which the objects carry the energy or essence of their owner and, freed from the trappings of being specific subjects, are better able to be honest, direct and vulnerable. The play’s title comes from Gordon’s chair, which longs to become a wheelchair — a symbol not of limitation but of aspirational usefulness and agency.

As Gordon, Joffe’s physical appearance adds to rather than obscures his particularity. Arbery writes Gordon and Ginny as he writes all of his characters — as individuals, comprehensible only if fully taken on their own terms.

Will Arbery with his seven sisters on a family trip to Georgia in 1999.Credit…From Will Arbery

“What if,” Arbery says to me, “you write this profile like a photo mosaic? Where it’s all little portraits of my friends, and if we stand back from it, we’ll sort of see me?” We were in a backyard in Brooklyn. It was late summer; the air was beginning to turn crisp, charged at the edge of two seasons. All around us were Arbery’s closest friends, gathered to celebrate his birthday. He was the center of many people’s attention, which he received until it overwhelmed him. Then he walked to the far corner of the yard, where he could tend to the grill, back turned to the crowd, until it was time to deliver us heaping plates of food. One by one, the guests told me stories of how Arbery has included them in his creative orbit by asking them to make things with him. The playwright Jacob Kyle Robinson told me that he and Arbery were introduced by Lynn Nottage, who saw a similarity in their backgrounds — both are from Texas and grew up in conservative, religious environments. Robinson had spent a part of his youth as a traveling musician in an evangelical Christian church and wanted to write about this world without being reductive or judgmental. Arbery gave him some advice: “Whatever you write is not immediately an indictment,” Robinson recalls. “It’s just your experience.”

There was a ring of chairs set up in a circle in the yard, but no one was sitting there. I watched as Arbery gravitated toward the farthest chair at the edge of the yard and sat alone in the dark. Robinson quietly moved to sit next to Arbery. They acknowledged each other but didn’t speak much, both understanding the gift of shared but still private space. Later, Robinson told me about the aspect of Arbery’s writing that feels the most unique to him: patience. “I think he’s offering this patience to be like, Yes, address the world burning, but also sit and be patient with yourself and with others and just sit in silence. … It’s OK to be patient, it’s OK to be slow, to take things slowly, because everything feels really urgent right now, and Will’s like, Yes, move, but also breathe and take this all in. You see long shows on Broadway, but not patient shows.”

It was getting late, and most of the party guests had gone. The few who remained sat together in the circle with Arbery and talked late into the warm summer night. Arbery sat up, listened, watched his friends with a smile that could quickly and without warning become a grimace.

A few days before, Arbery said to me, “I think I am obsessed with anticipatory grief.” At 17, for his college entrance exam, he’d written about that primal experience of sitting at his family’s dinner table, thinking that if he were to go out in the world to pursue his dreams, he’d better do work that was worth leaving them. “This is a lot of people to love,” he said, “and a lot of people to lose, and that loss is going to start happening one day.” Some of this, he explained to me, comes from his being aware from a young age that people with Down syndrome, like Julia, have a reduced life expectancy. “If there’s one person that shouldn’t be the case for, it’s her. That’s not right.”

One of the first stories Arbery ever told me was how, even as a child, he longed to protect Julia’s nuanced way of speaking. When he was away at camp, and then later, as a young adult in college, he would receive letters and emails from Julia and could tell when they had been edited, her language standardized by someone else. But Arbery loved the particular cadence, rhythms and arrangements of her sentences and did not want them changed.

In the program note for “Corsicana,” Arbery says that he wrote the play thinking about the dances Julia makes up, the songs she sings in private, the art she makes that belongs only to her. “I’ve been thinking about the way Julia sings ‘O Holy Night,’ making everyone shut up and listen and watch her, and then getting too nervous to start. So we all have to sing it together, trudging through the notes until we reach the time-to-shine part — ‘fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices’ — and that’s when her voice rises unmistakably above all of ours, and she finishes the song, and suddenly there’s a new thing in the air above our heads and we all get quiet.”

In their most personal moments, Arbery’s plays become ways of using language to preserve the people — his sisters, his parents, his friends — whom he loves and will, inevitably, lose. And when those losses come, the bits of their voices he lent to his characters can be heard again for as long as his plays are performed.

“Time machines exist, and they are books and works of art.” His plays, he says, “feel like my way of staying at that dinner table.”

Chloé Cooper Jones is a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of “Easy Beauty.” She was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Erik Madigan Heck is a photographer based in Connecticut and London known for work that borrows from fashion photography, landscape painting and portraiture.

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