Onstage: For Heaven's Sake
Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Paula Ewin, Kate Kearney-Patch, Emily Batsford, Kendall Rileigh, and Mark Bank in the off-Broadway production of "For Heaven's Sake!"
Even if Laura Pedersen didn’t have a play opening the 710 Main season this year, Western New York would still be proud to claim her as one of ours. According to her website, Glamour magazine named Pedersen one of ten “Outstanding Young Working Women” in 1990. In 1994, President Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. At age twenty, she was the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange and, at age twenty-five, the youngest columnist for the New York Times. Those last two talents combined led to her first book, Play Money, a best-seller about her time on the floor. From then, it seems, she never stopped writing—short stories, fiction, children’s books, essays, stand-up comedy, and when an idea seems best suited to the stage: plays.
Like fellow Buffalo playwrights A. R. Gurney and Tom Dudzick, Pedersen’s WNY upbringing frequently finds its way into her work, including For Heaven’s Sake (formerly The Brightness of Heaven). Where Gurney concentrates on WNY WASPs and Dudzick favors Polish-Americans, For Heaven’s Sake is about an Irish-American family in 1974—in Buffalo.
“My neighborhood had a lot of large Irish and Polish Catholic families,” Pedersen notes. “This was an automatic recipe for fun because we kids outnumbered the adults by an entire army. Still, there were a lot of rules to be followed—fish on Friday, going to Mass and confession and confirmation class, treating elders properly, minding your manners. Mothers had a whole set of rules on how to dress, especially when it came to girls. Parents dictated strict curfews and rules about dating. However, with what we were seeing on TV in addition to the behavior of the burgeoning hippies who were just a few years older, the climate was becoming increasingly permissive. Our parents were fighting a losing battle, but, God bless them, they were giving it their all. Change is always difficult, especially when there’s a set of instructions for getting into heaven and the family may not be reunited for all eternity if someone suddenly goes rogue.”
That sounds like conflict that would resonate in any religion (who saw Beau Jest at Jewish Rep last season?), but the Buffalo ethos will make it as special to locals as Over the Tavern. “When we played at Cherry Lane last fall, a lot of Buffalonians stopped by to see us,” says Pedersen. “It got to the point where the cast could tell when Buffalonians were in the house because they laughed in all the right places, and it was a different kind of laughter—they knew exactly what was being talked about or knew someone like the character saying it. At one of the talkbacks, a woman from Buffalo said she saw her grandmother, her mother, and even herself at different times. Then Tony Conte, the president of Shea’s, and his wife, Linda, came to see the show and asked what was next. I said that more than anything we wanted to shuffle off to Buffalo.”
The Sweet Home graduate couldn’t be more thrilled to be the Curtain Up! show at the former Studio Arena, where, from the time she was born, her parents had season tickets with several other couples. “It was always this big night out,” Pedersen recalls. “They didn’t really do anything else that required getting all gussied up. I clearly recall watching my mom put on her makeup and attach those dress shields with little safety pins. And if a couple divorced, which spouse got custody of the Studio Arena tickets was a major issue. As I grew older, my parents would take me to the child-friendly shows. Of course we went to Peter Pan starring Bonnie Franklin. When I moved to Manhattan, Bonnie Franklin lived in my neighborhood and whenever I saw her hailing a cab, I wanted to yell out, ‘But why not fly?’”
Though Pedersen has lived in New York for years, she’s never far from Buffalo, where she still has family and friends, a condo—and lots of memories. With For Heaven’s Sake, she says, “I’m not trying to give people my version of 1970s Buffalo so much as offer an outline where folks who were around back then can insert their own memories.”
Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young.