NEW YORK -- When Austin Pendleton took on a role in the off-Broadway production of "Ivanov," he said yes with one caveat. He had to have Dec. 6 off for a commitment to be at Off the Wall theater for the opening of "The Speed Queen," Anne Stockton's one-woman show adapted from Stewart O'Nan's chilling novel. Mr. Pendleton, the director, will be joined by Point Breeze native Mr. O'Nan as the play's three-night stand gets under way at the Carnegie theater.
Busy actor-director Mr. Pendleton, who is directing the Classic Stage production of Chekhov's "Ivanov," starring Ethan Hawke, has been involved with the development of "The Speed Queen" for nearly a decade. On Tuesday, he sat down for an interview in an empty rehearsal space in midtown Manhattan. The lights were dimmed and noises poured in from an open window and singers practicing in other rooms, but Mr. Pendleton pulled up a folding chair and asked about his friend Ted Pappas and the Public Theater and about Pittsburgh, where he had visited often as a native of Warren, Ohio.
He met Ms. Stockton ("She's from Johnstown, you know," he said) through his cousin in the early 2000s, when she had already begun work on the adaptation for an acting class, and she asked for his assistance as a coach. She went on to take acting classes taught by Mr. Pendleton, and he continued to coach her on "The Speed Queen" apart from the class work.
"I read the book, which terrified me; I was so disturbed by it," Mr. Pendleton said. "She performed it for me and I thought she had it very well, so the coaching consisted of certain restructuring, not sweeping changes but almost like editing a film. We would do that endlessly to see what flowed. ... Somewhere along the line, she said, why don't you just be the director? And by this time, I was quite hooked by it -- by the novel, by her adaptation and her performance."
The title character is Marjorie, an Oklahoma death-row inmate recounting her part in a dozen murders for a thinly veiled Stephen King, who owns the rights to Marjorie's story. She is given a tape recorder and questions to answer in the hours before her death, but she decides this is her opportunity to tell her side of the story. As her tale of sex, drugs, motherhood and murder unfolds, she tries to justify her unjustifiable actions. Mr. Pendleton said that he and the actress "worked to beef up the present tense" as Marjorie faces the death penalty while insisting on her innocence.
The play has been performed in a variety of venues, such as the Midtown (N.Y.C.) International Theatre Festival (winning outstanding performance in a solo show), New Jersey Repertory Theater and the Culture Project's Women Center Stage Festival. Before each performance, Ms. Stockton meets with Mr. Pendleton, and each time, the director said, "I become fascinated by different things."
Mr. O'Nan came to see the show once in New York, and they had dinner afterward. The writer then sent Ms. Stockton a text and asked her to remove minor things that were also in the novel -- "Brilliant, but he wanted them out," the director said -- and include others. "We of course did everything he asked. Almost every bit of the writing is from the novel."
As the story unfolds, Marjorie is drawn into her crime spree along with her husband Lamont, with whom she shares a love of cars and a baby. She's also is an addict, drawn to drugs and ill-advised relationships.
During a stretch in jail she meets Natalie, who becomes a willing partner in a deadly triangle. Mr. Pendleton notes that Marjorie, in an attempt to justify her actions, often says she was attending to little things -- bringing along a wet wipe for her son who has fudge on his face -- although she knew that people were being slaughtered at the same time.
Marjorie's actions are repellent, yet she makes a case for her innocence, showing how circumstances have piled one on top of the other in a perfect storm of bad luck and bad choices.
"I've read other novels of [Mr. O'Nan's] and they are disturbing, but this is the champ," Mr. Pendleton said. "I do a lot of private coaching but when I decide to make a leap into directing, quite often people say to me, why did you want to direct this? ... One thing I might be drawn to here is how brilliantly the novel draws on the idea that a series of three or four left turns can lead to total horror, because before this, hers is an ordinary life. And now, as she faces her death, she's trying to hold on to this sense that she did the best she could. And I thought, that is something any of us could relate to -- maybe not on this scale, because here, it leads to horrifying things."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.