Amy Hartman is a top Pittsburgh playwright. But ask about her new work, The Chicken Snake, and she seems barely able to take credit for it. That's no reflection on quality: The play has already won a Pittsburgh Foundation grant ("for Outstanding Achievement by an Artist"). It's gotten at least three public readings in New York, and is set to world-premiere Nov. 15 at the Rep, Point Park University's well-respected professional theater company.
Yet when I met Hartman at the Pittsburgh Playhouse café to talk about Chicken Snake, she immediately read me "Frying Fish While Drunk," Lynn Emanuel's poem in the voice of a girl observing her inebriated mother. Hartman says the poem was a big inspiration for Chicken Snake -- enough that she had to excise dialogue that unconsciously echoed Emanuel.
And the poem wasn't the only influence on the play, a by-turns wildly comic, brutal and bittersweet work following a drug-addicted young stripper named Zooley to her home, where her dysfunctional family -- her addled father; her terminally ill mother; her agoraphobic twin brother, etc. -- endure trials at first increasingly absurd and then wrenching. Hartman also thanks The Tempest (for "how the emotional temperature of the people influences the weather"); local dramaturg Carlyn Aquiline, who's helped the script through many revisions; and a long list of people cross-sectioning Pittsburgh's theater community: playwrights who've helped her as well as actors, directors, tech people and critics. Among them are Martin Giles -- who was the first person to stage her work -- and John Shepherd, who's directing Chicken Snake. (The production's top-notch cast includes Giles; Tami Dixon, as Zooley; Tony Bingham; and Mary Rawson.)
Hartman even takes care to credit the play's title to a talk she once heard at an AA meeting.
Then there was Hartman's relationship with her parents. At 19, Hartman spent a year caring for her terminally ill mother. Even after her parents divorced, when Hartman was a child, their love for each other remained evident. Her father, an alcoholic, died one year after his ex-wife. "When I dream of them, I always dream of them together," she says. Likewise, in the play, Gep's wife, Eloise, remains his on-stage muse even after she dies.
Hartman, who's in her mid-40s, is cheerful, diminutive and trim, with straight blonde hair; for the past decade she's made her living as a voice actor, recording everything from beer commercials to History Channel promos. (Her husband, Robert Deaner, runs and co-owns Market Street Sound recording studio.) Formerly, Hartman acted on the stage. In 1997, she decided to concentrate on writing; her first play was a Eugene O'Neill Theatre Conference finalist. Lately, she's on a roll: Chicken Snake will mark her fifth staged reading or full production in the past year. (Another was Mazel, in a favorably reviewed Jewish Community Center production directed by Giles.)
Chicken Snake explores the common emotional ground between addiction and grief. Hartman says she was surprised that people found the script funny. The comedy, she says, is her own defense mechanism, an almost unintentional function of "the absurdity of our denial."
Yet, she says, "I never feel my writing is about me. ... It's just sort of going through me." Writing, Hartman adds, "[is] not therapy to me. It's more like dreaming. ... It's like mining, like archaeology. It's like this need. You don't really want to get better. You want to respect your suffering."
The Chicken Snake Thu., Nov. 15-Sun., Nov. 18, and Nov. 29-Dec. 9. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. $24-27. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com