Tammy Ryan was so affected by the sight of a Sudanese boy graciously sharing his papaya with a Pittsburgh woman in Whole Foods in 2004 that it set the stage for her next play.
Thursday, she won the American Theatre Critics Association's 2012 Francesca Primus Prize for "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods."
"Seeing him share his favorite fruit with the woman was a powerful image," she said. "I was amazed by his kindness, especially after finding out what he has experienced in his life."
The play tells the story of a friendship between Gabriel, a former "Lost Boy" who completed the 800-mile walk from Sudan to Kenya when civil war broke out in the early 1990s, and Christine, a middle-age middle-class white woman.
Gabriel survived on only a bowl of grain a day for 10 years in Kenya before being moved to the United States. He met Christine while working in the produce section of Whole Foods.
Ms. Ryan, of Shadyside, will receive $10,000 as part of the national award that is presented annually to "an emerging woman theater artist," according to the ATCA.
She was chosen by a nationwide committee of well-recognized critics and beat out 21 other women competing for the award.
"It hasn't sunken in yet," she said. "I am very thankful for the support from Pittsburgh Playhouse, the actors, Shelia McKenna, my longtime collaborator, and all the others who have believed in me."
Ms. Ryan humbly admitted that she usually applies for these types of awards only to publicize her plays and never thought she would actually win one.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "It is such an honor."
The ATCA is not the first to recognize the play's brilliance, however.
"Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" won the Premiere Stages Play Festival in 2009 and had a sold-out run in 2011 at Playhouse Rep, the professional company at Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse.
"I think of myself as an advocate for women playwrights, which makes the award that much more special," she said.
Ms. Ryan received the news Sunday.
"I was so excited about winning the award, making it difficult not to tell anyone," she said. "The other women that applied for it are so talented and so amazing. ... I am floored that I won."
The play was developed in 2009 at the New Harmony Project and was co-produced in September 2010 by Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.
When asked what she would do with the prize money, Ms. Ryan said with a laugh that it would be put toward her daughter's tuition at Duquesne University.
"I'm still in shock," she said. "I'm just trying to take it all in."
Rob Wennemer: email@example.com; 412-263-1723. First Published June 15, 2012 4:00 AM