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Outer angels, inner beasts

by Peter D. Kramer

May 3, 2008

Playwright Howard Meyer says he tends to ruminate with his plays, drawing on experiences he's had and people he's met over the course of years.

He'll work on them for a few months and shelve them and then come back at them with new eyes.

For his latest play, "AngelBeast," which gets a gala Opening Night tonight for a four-weekend run at St. John's Episcopal Church in Pleasantville, Meyer - co-founder and artistic director of Pleasantville's Axial Theatre - drew on two experiences he had while teaching.

For a couple of years, he taught playwriting to inmates at Sing Sing prison. Under the auspices of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, Meyer met with small groups of men in the maximum-security prison in Ossining, teaching them to express themselves through writing, plays in particular.

Setting foot in the prison scared him at first, he says, but over time his attitude changed.

"It was a profound experience of getting to know these guys and coming to like a lot of them and having a connection with a lot of them," he says.

"We looked at their writing but also got to talk about their pasts. And often (their behavior was shaped) because of abusive homes or broken homes or falling into gang situations."

It got Meyer to thinking about what makes people act out violently. "Here are men who are gentle, who are trying to rehabilitate themselves and who are bringing out their higher qualities in life," he says. "But these same men were driven or made the choice to do something that would land them in a prison.

"It opened up questions for me of who we are as human beings and the aspects that we contain - both light and dark - and the choices we make and what influences those choices."

Inside us, he suggests, live angels and beasts.

About the same time, Meyer was teaching playwriting at Somers High School, where part of "AngelBeast" is set. There, he'd chat with Deborah Field, a friend of his and a longtime school nurse at Somers.

"It was clear that her office was a very welcoming environment," Meyer says. "There's always the question of who's really sick and who's there for just a timeout, but she was very non-judgmental. She wasn't a pushover, but understanding of a kid's need to cool out for a bit."

In one of their visits, Field told Meyer about a student who had come to her in obvious distress, but she couldn't get to the bottom of what the problem was. She thought he had been in a fight.

"He left her office and it came to light, not too long after, that this kid had murdered a woman on the track at Somers High School," Meyer says. (The student, Alexander Rodriguez, was eventually convicted of manslaughter, given the maximum sentence and paroled in 2005.)

"That also got into my system, this random and horrible event," Meyer says, "but yet this young man going to the nurse's office as the first place he went after he did this."

One of the relationships in "AngelBeast," all these years later, is between a student and his school nurse, whom he visits even after he has graduated.

Meyer had the Sing Sing experiences and the story from Somers brewing in him long before he began writing.

"I call myself an optimist about the human condition, but this is the first play I've written that I knew, right from the start, was going to be a tragedy. I was complicated about that. My God, I've never written an out-and-out tragedy before," he says.

Then Meyer saw a German production of "Hedda Gabler" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"It was so brilliant that I thought 'There's a reason why tragedies are written,'" he says. "It's a place where we can see what not to do or how things develop that aren't so healthy and pure."

"AngelBeast" concerns Charlie, a fictional football standout at Somers whose life spirals down after a violent event in his family. Now, trying to get back on track with a tryout at Penn State, Charlie's friendships, choices and haunting memories create a perfect storm that threatens to derail his dreams.

The play, which Meyer has picked up and put down several times over the past three years, has been developed in earnest over the past 18 months or so, with scenes getting a reading with Axial's corps of actors and playwrights and, eventually, another reading at the Jacob Burns Film Center in June.

Meyer's collaborative process at Axial brings actors and directors and playwrights into the mix.

Meyer says "AngelBeast" director Molly O'Mara has added some elements to flesh out concerns raised at those readings.

"And her father was a football coach, so she understood the world of this play," he says.

So what, in the end, does Meyer think keeps our beasts in check and our angels in the forefront?

"I think there's a certain amount of grace in that process and there are people who come into our lives and help steer us in a positive direction and give us the support and nurturing that maybe we didn't get when we were growing up," he says.

"And maybe they steer us toward therapists or other ways of understanding ourselves and learning how to defuse those beasts so that we can make choices that aren't harmful to ourselves or others," he says.