Cristin Kelly

Interview with Kathleen Clark and Robert Farley, Southern Comforts

In a recent interview, playwright Kathleen Clark and Director Robert Farley spoke to FST’s Literary Manager, Cristin Kelly, about Southern Comforts.

CK – Kathleen, what are the origins of the writing of Southern Comforts?

Kathleen Clark – The origin is from my family. My mother left Tennessee when she was 18 and moved to New Jersey. Her mother followed her up with her siblings. My mother met my father, who was from New Jersey. Then her mother met a man in New Jersey. They both married New Jersey men. So, two Southern women married to Northern men – that inspired the play.

CK – What about that part of your history sparked your imagination?

KC – I think the two cultures – Southern and Northern – that I grew up with was very interesting to me. What’s also interesting to me is two older people needing and having a relationship. I think this play is about how you live together happily ever after, and how you get along in a relationship. It doesn’t matter if your 70, or 20, or 30. It’s interesting because they’re older and they still want to have a sexual relationship. It’s not about being old; it’s about having a relationship.

CK– Bob, what first drew you to this play?

Robert Farley – I first read the play about a year ago. I recall it so clearly, like it was moments ago. By the second page I’d fallen in love with it. I know Gus and I know Amanda, and so will anyone else that will encounter them. I loved how well the play moved along, how drop dead funny it is almost every step of the way. I was constantly touched and moved by it. Like any great piece of theatre, it has a big surprise at the end, which I never talk to anyone about. It was one of the first plays I’ve ever read that I couldn’t breathe. I could inhale, but I couldn’t get out the exhale. To see a play implode into one idea in one flashing moment of time was very unique and very unusual. To be able to, almost at once, laugh and cry with abandonment, all in the same moment is extraordinary to me. And I’m not just saying that because Kate’s on the other line!

Whether you’re thinking about Jane Fonda, Sandra Day O’Conner, or Ellen Burstyn, all these people in this country that won’t let the fact that they’re aging bring them down. They live fully and embrace that even in old age. The thing I experienced once we got out of rehearsal and with audiences was just what Kate referred to and it was extraordinary. There are intersections in the play where it doesn’t matter if you’re 30, 40, or 20; you’re going to connect in a very immediate and personal way to what is happening with Amanda and Gus.

KC– There’s a definite culture difference. I know this from growing up. My mother grew up in the south, and my father was in New Jersey. Gus finds her a little bit exotic with her accent and the way she is. She’s different than all the New Jersey women that he knows.

CK– How so? What would you pinpoint as different from the New Jersey women he knows?

KC– I think she has an interesting way of flirting. It’s not over the top, its natural: “This is the way I am.” [She is] just naturally going to be friendly in a way that might be interpreted as flirting. I see it in my family. All of the women, it’s just the way they are. It’s intriguing to him. It’s a very southern trait. It’s engaging and somewhat mysterious at the same time, because if you’re the guy, you don’t know where you stand. You don’t know if you’re being flirted with or not. When she says that he’s handsome, he looks at her so shocked, and she’s just stating a fact. It’s just the way it is. He doesn’t know what to do with that information.

CK – That is very Southern.

RF – It’s a very southern trait. You find it all over Atlanta, with people who grew up here. It’s engaging and somewhat mysterious at the same time. If you’re the guy, you don’t know where you stand. You don’t know if you’re being flirted with or not.

KC – When she says that he’s handsome, he looks at her, shocked. She’s just stating a fact. It’s just the way it is, “you are handsome.” He doesn’t know what to do with that information.

RF– Southern Comforts is often referred to, and justifiably so, as a romantic comedy. But I think the romantic part of it is, the falling in love is the easy part. What’s more challenging and complex is how these two people, so set in their ways and their lives, have to learn to live together.

KC– We don’t need to see them get married, we just have to see them once they get married. The interesting part is how you keep it together and how you live together on a day to day basis.

CK – What are the unique obstacles for this older couple that they have to overcome?

KC – No matter what age you are in the relationship, [but] especially when you’re older, you bring a lot of baggage to the relationship. You’re bringing other relationships, what you’ve learned over the years, what you’re suspicious of, and what you don’t want to repeat. That’s a little bit different from when you’re 20. Once we get into a content rhythm… do we really want to toss something into the mix?

RF– Part of what they both have to deal with is that by entering a relationship, everything is new, including intimacy of any kind. Part of what both characters ultimately have to confront is whether they’re going to stay the way they were for a fondness of memories past, or are they going to rekindle their lives to go through their relationship with another and come back to the present.

KC – The title is a little bit deceiving because as much as she brings the southern comforts to him, he in turn, brings comfort to her. That’s what I wanted. In relationships, even though it seems like the woman [brings it]… when you really examine it and see what the man is bringing, it’s a lot. She’s just as comforted by his stability, his being the way he is, what he has to offer and how practical he is. It works both ways.

CK – Kathleen, does this play have things in common with other things you’ve written?

KC – I just had a play done in New York called Secrets of a Soccer Mom. It’s very different from Southern Comforts in plot, except that it seemed to have a lot of laughing and crying close together. It [has] a lot of serious moments broken by something funny. That’s… a theme going along with these plays. Whenever I get to a point where it is serious and poignant, it seems that in life that is when everyone reaches for something to lighten it up in some way. Not in a superficial way, but in an attempt to move along to another point.

When I was working in New York, we did Driving Miss Daisy and Alfred Uhry once said, “write the truth.” That always stayed with me because that’s what he did. It doesn’t have to be the truth plot-wise, but if the essence and the feelings and the heart of the people is true, that’s what people relate to and identify with.

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