Laughter Is the Best Medicine in NJ Rep's Premiere of "For Worse"
Each of us has something that makes us special and unique. What sets apart the New Jersey Repertory Company (New Jersey Rep), a professional, nonprofit theater in Long Branch is this – New Jersey Rep produces ONLY plays that have not yet been presented anywhere else. Adele Sammarco, Director of Marketing & Communications, explained. “New Jersey Rep is the only venue in the state that solely produces new plays,” she said. “Of course, there are many other wonderful theaters in New Jersey that put on new works,” she said. “But solely bringing new plays to audiences is all we do, totally, throughout the year. It’s our niche.”
New Jersey Rep was founded in 1997 by SuzAnne Barabas, Artistic Director, and Gabor Barabas, Executive Producer. Their mission – in addition to a dedication to presenting original, unseen plays – included creating strong community participation, building a diverse audience, inspiring an interest in theater arts among young people and nurturing the work of writers from wide-ranging backgrounds.
According to the NJ Rep website, the theater has produced 90+ plays in 17 seasons, including more than 60 world premieres. And, because of its open submission policy, NJ Rep receives more than 750 scripts each year.
“We know how difficult it can be for a young or unproven writer to find a place to showcase their work,” Sammarco said, “and we want to help with that. We are like a laboratory for playwrights.”
NJ Rep’s current production, “For Worse,” is an excellent example. This play marks the writing debut for actress and producer, Deborah Rennard, who is perhaps best-known for her role as J. R. Ewing’s secretary in “Dallas,” and whose marriage to Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis is the core of the story.
In a recent phone conversation, Rennard described the way that her emotional roller-coaster ride following the discovery of her husband’s infidelity propelled her into writing the play.
“Almost a year to the day before the trouble happened in our marriage,” she said, “I remember talking with one of my closest friends, who was struggling to deal with the knowledge that her husband had been unfaithful.”
Rennard said she tried to be a strong and supportive friend, to listen and to refrain from offering advice. But, she said, as time went on and her friend and she had this same conversation over and over, it became harder for Rennard to remain impassive.
“I said to myself, ‘Why is it so hard for her to see what is going on and what she should do?’”
“Then, the same thing happened to me,” said Rennard, “and I understood that a situation like that is anything but black and white.”
“There are so many aspects, especially in a long-term marriage – anger, grief, betrayal, the sense that you’ve lost your best friend,” she said. “And it is not only two people breaking up. There is the family and a whole community of people affected by it.”
“You feel like your entire life is falling apart,” said Rennard.
“As time passed, though, I began to see that maybe – just maybe – things would get better.
“People all around are going through this,” she said, “and I realized that my sharing what I was learning could be helpful to others.”
In addition, Rennard admits, the process of putting thoughts and feelings to paper was therapeutic.
“I started to let all of this out and to see the bigger picture,” she said. “And I was able to remove myself enough from situations that had felt overwhelmingly devastating and find humor in them.
“Laughter is the best medicine.”
Contrary to what some people thought, she told me, this was not an attempt at revenge. In fact, her former husband ended up being immensely helpful with the project.
“I had to work hard to find a male point of view, and Paul (Haggis) was a marvelous mentor,” she said. “He helped me find the courage to write this story.”
Rennard also notes that working with Haggis reminded her that a failed marriage does not have to feel like failure.
“Just because you are not together as a couple,” she said, “doesn’t have to mean that you can’t be part of each other’s life.
“A wise person told me that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed,” she said. “And I thought a lot about that concept while I was working on the play.
“Ultimately, I feel like I was able to take something painful and transformed it into something positive.”
“At the conclusion of the play, which is somewhat of a revelation,” Rennard told me (and I was imagining a twinkle in her eye), “there is an element of wondering what happens next.”
“So, even at the end,” she said, “it’s not really an end.”
“For Worse” will be on stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company through April 10. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. New Jersey Repertory Company’s theater is located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.