Playwright Jordan Harrison takes us back a century when actors discovered their inner woman, in Azuka Theatre's "Act a Lady."

Posted: November 08, 2011

In Southern and Midwestern small towns of the early 1900s, there were theater directors who traveled, almost Music Man-style, persuading men to dress up and perform in song-and-dance revues that came to be known as Womanless Weddings.


"People didn't attach too much meaning to it," says Brooklyn-based playwright Jordan Harrison, 34. "It was just a playful upending of roles."

But imagine how the stakes would be raised if some of the men turned out to be really good at becoming women, Harrison thought after finding old photos of Womanless Weddings.

That was his impetus for Act a Lady, which is now in previews and has its Philadelphia premiere Wednesday at Azuka Theatre, at the First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom.

Azuka director Kevin Glaccum, who brought Harrison's Kid-Simple to town in 2008, is elated.

"His plays are very theatrical, they're not meant to be turned into movies," Glaccum says. "And this one is screamingly funny."

Harrison says his play-within-a-play "is about the power of a dress or a pair of trousers to unlock something in a person."

He grew up near Seattle, on Bainbridge Island, and graduated with a master's of fine arts degree from Brown University when Paula Vogel directed the program. Vogel's How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, and at Brown she nurtured two other writers whose names are now familiar in Philadelphia: Sarah Ruhl, whose In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) won eight 2011 Barrymore Awards for the Wilma Theater; and Philadelphia native Quiara Alegria Hudes, the Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated book writer of In the Heights.

But this is Harrison's moment in Philadelphia's spotlight. His musical The Flea and the Professor, commissioned by the Arden Theatre for its children's theater, recently won two Barrymores, for best production of a musical and best leading actor in a musical.

"We had never commissioned a piece for kids," said Terrence J. Nolen, Arden artistic director. "But I was attracted to Jordan's wit."

"For a work for kids to be recognized alongside the work for adult audiences was a real triumph for Jordan," Nolen said. "He's strong-willed, but incredibly collaborative. I'm always encouraging writers to write for the kid that they were. And I'm sure he was a precocious kid."

In Harrison's playful use of words, there is evidence that his intellect (he was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow) is filtered through his childlike curiosity to bring flashes of insight and moments of poignant realization.

A character in Kid-Simple invents a third ear, "a machine for sounds that can't be heard," for a school science fair. "It can record grass growing; you can hear what your father says to your mother in his head."

And in Act a Lady, a character muses about his experience dressing in women's clothes: "I went somewhere and I'm not sure I totally came back."

On Oct. 12, scenes from seven of Harrison's plays were performed before a select audience to mark the end of his seven-year fellowship at New Dramatists, the respected Manhattan nonprofit that nourishes playwrights.

"Jordan's plays are about noticing things that are right in front of you but somehow invisible," New Dramatists artistic director Todd London told the audience. "They're about capturing that moment when the present becomes the past, when the world we know becomes the world we knew."

Sexual initiation scenes are common to Harrison's plays, and props carry the emotional arc of his stories.

Act a Lady, he says, "is a sort of love song to the theater machinery of another era: hand fans and footlights; pulleys and velvet curtains - things that hardly appear on stage anymore."

Harrison met his partner, Adam Greenfield, when Greenfield directed an early workshop of the play in Portland, Ore. Harrison was there on a fellowship.

"I remember thinking, this is going to be a terrible idea if the relationship ends and the fellowship continues," Harrison said. "But it proved to be more enduring than the fellowship."

Act a Lady had its world premiere in 2006 at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. That's where Glaccum saw it.

 Harrison's latest work, Maple and Vine, will be performed at Playwrights Horizon in New York Nov. 19 to Dec. 23. It's about a couple who become allergic to their 21st-century lives; when they meet a community of 1950s reenactors, they give up their cellphones and sushi for cigarettes and Tupperware parties.

And he is working on another musical, Suprema, about William Moulton Marston, who invented the lie-detector test and, 20 years later, the superhero Wonder Woman.

Harrison says Philadelphia's theater scene "has a generosity and an excitement that you don't always find in New York, where there is so much theater to see that it gets exhausting.

"Maybe it's because I'm from a relatively small place, but I like it."


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com.

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