A Note from Our Dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel

In 2015, Julia May Jonas set herself a challenge: To create a mini counter-canon to mid-twentieth century American Drama. She chose five plays she admired by titans of the form—Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Eugene O’Neill’s  Long Day’s Journey into Night, Sam Shepard’s True West, David Mamet’s American Buffalo, and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. From there, she would re-make those plays, mapping their central relationships and dramatic questions onto new characters, who would be female or nonbinary.  

The result: The All Long True American Stories cycle, taking its name from one word from the play titles of her source material, ALTAS for short. These plays aren’t satire, takedowns, or point-by-point correctives. Instead, they “willfully and gleefully ignore patriarchal circumstances and constraints,” to reinvestigate the visions of power and family, guilt and humiliation, the waning promise of the American Dream of the initial plays for a different set of Americans.  

Sam Shepard’s plays are known for their rock-and-roll sensibility, muscular language, and simmering violence—their willingness to Go There, through shocking plot revelations (the lovers are half-siblings in Fool for Love) and striking stage pictures (armloads of corn in Buried Child). The ricochet between the character’s emotional extremity and the myths about the families—but mostly lone-wolf men—who contain these extremities are part of the toxic and intoxicating charge of Shepard’s work. 

Playwright Julia May Jonas was drawn to True West for this sensibility: “Shepard’s work is interested in primal drives,” she says. “An essential life force, essential violence, essential animalistic drive that exists inside of humans—and I think for Shepard, it was mostly male humans.” Working with True West allowed her to craft ways to allow women to embody that animalistic drive. “It’s a project that felt kind of spiritual and essential.” 

For Problems Between Sisters, Jonas holds up a funhouse mirror to True West, reflecting Shepard’s obsession with blood ties and the complex duality of siblings while telling a story of two women whose rage comes to center on each other.  The titular sisters are ten years apart, were socialized in different versions of the same family, and are both eight months pregnant. Older sister Jess is a visual artist, toiling away in the New York art scene, feeling constrained by all the success she hasn’t yet achieved and the impending constraints of motherhood. Younger sister Rory is a grifter, looking for a wealthy audience for her latest con while she is still pregnant, radiant, and, as she puts it, “in the most trustworthy shape” of her life.  

In looking to set Shepard’s questions about how and whether to domesticate or release the animal drives to dominate, to provide, to win over one’s sibling, Jonas quickly ran up against the gendered expectations of power and self-determination—very 2020s questions about women-as-Art Monsters: Is it ok for a woman to give herself over to making art? Is it ok for a mother to want to do so? Or as Jonas frames these questions, “True West is about these two loners, who are acting onto themselves. It gets stickier when you put women into those roles—acting for yourself is stickier when you’re a woman.”  

Problems Between Sisters and the ALTAS cycle as a whole is in conversation with bedrock assumptions of theatrical traditions.  Jonas, who has taught undergrads at Skidmore and other institutions, ties her project to Aristotle’s theories of tragedy. “Aristotle says that structurally, a play needs to be about a king,” points out Jonas. “How else am an audience going to feel the kind of fundamental identification they need for tragedy to work?” Arthur Miller took Aristotle to task in his 1949 essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” arguing that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were,” following the premieres of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, both of which featured salesmen as their protagonists.   

The ALTAS plays likewise offer another take on the Everyman figure, using different characters to embody their plays’ thematic concerns. It’s a strategy based in excess. Shrewd and playful, the cycle is, as Jonas’s character Anita says in Problems Between Sisters, “fucking volume, volume, volume,” remaking dramatic situations around new protagonists and looking for the cultural friction that results. In aggregate, the cycle shows women and nonbinary people in a range of situations, pushing audiences to confront their own assumptions about what “Women’s Stories” can and can’t be about. “The plays I chose, they’re all big plays,” Jonas says. “They’re about Good and Evil. They’re about Big Humanitarian Themes. That’s why I appreciated some of them and loved some of them. So the project for me is finding a way to cast a woman in that “everyman” role and still have it feel eternal, huge, big, and human. Our culture sees women as specific, not universal. I want to show the bigness in here.” 

Adrien-Alice Hansel