Gloucester Stage premieres ’Last Day’ - dark secrets in a cemetery
When playwright Richard Vetere was growing up in the 1950s in Maspeth, Queens in New York, he looked out his bedroom window and saw rows upon rows of tombstones in a cemetery. It held, he recalled, an unexplored and unexplained power over his imagination. That hold never abated, even after he was hired as a teenaged member of the cemetery's ground crew. Every now and again, he'd find himself ruminating on the cemetery, remembering how he felt as a young man about death and dying, and how those perceptions changed when he became an adult and left his hometown neighborhood for a life of his own.
Vetere attended Columbia University, achieved success as a published poet, novelist, screenwriter and playwright. Commitments to other projects kept him from delving into those haunted early memories. He never revisited or drew on the theme of that fenced off gloomy landscape that had so influenced his early imagination, a place that lay always just beyond the confines of his boyhood home.
Now in his late 50s, the idea came to Vetere to turn his early experiences into a play, "Last Day", that is set in a cemetery on Long Island. It will be staged by Gloucester Stage Company, directed by Eric C. Engel, in a world premiere, opening July 21 and running through August 7 at the Gorton Theatre in Gloucester.
In many respects, the new play is not only about his memories but it represents a homecoming for Vetere. He has had a long association with Gloucester Stage - his plays "The Marriage Fool," "Three Sisters from Queens," "Gangster Apparel" and "First Love" -- have all been produced there. He is also a member of Gloucester Stage’s founding artistic director Israel Horovitz’s Actor’s Studio in Manhattan, where many staged readings of his works have been held over the years.
"I’ve been working as a writer for the past thirty years," he said in a recent interview, "first as a poet, then as a screenwriter, and as a playwright. But after all these years I decided I wanted to write what I felt compelled to write. When you work as a screenwriter, you write what they tell you to write. So I made the decision to get away from the studios. And while there is a certain thrill to that kind of work, like in the (1983) movie ’Vigilante,’ a film I wrote that has since become a cult classic, you tend to put distance between that which inspired you to want to be a writer in the first place, namely telling stories you know are yours alone to tell."
His creative process
Freeing himself from the lucrative work provided by the movie studios allowed Vetere to conjure many of his early memories. He set forth to work on a draft of the cemetery play a year or so ago. That led to sharing an early script with director Eric C. Engel at Gloucester Stage, who read the work, liked it, staged a public reading of it, and then committed the company to produce it for this summer’s season.
"Eric is a wonderful director to work with," Vetere said. "There are directors who are great with actors, but not great with the text of the play, and there are those directors who understand the text but fail to translate that into how actors must interpret the work. Eric is good at both."
Vetere also credits the actors - "Last Day" has a three-person cast, two men, who are friends, and a woman - with helping him realize the potential of his work.
"Actors are really your first audience," Vetere said. "They are not only reading the lines, but making decisions on how those lines need to be delivered, and, what ensues is a discussion on how those lines can be improved. And that’s the point where we are at now, making improvements to the text before opening night."
Vetere, who was scheduled to be in residence in Gloucester to attend rehearsals this week, is staying put in his New York apartment making recommended changes to the script.
"I’m reworking some of the lines," he said, "making time adjustments, sharpening up some of the play’s twists and turns. It’s all very good, very useful work."
Spoiler alert: "Last Day" tells the story of a cemetery worker’s last day on the job, and describes that worker’s friendship with another man and the secret they have kept between them, namely the murder of a third man who is interred in the cemetery. Everything is moving along with his final day at work until he receives word that the Archdiocese, who owns the cemetery, have plans for Section 15, which is where the murdered man lies buried. The third character, Melissa, has a role in this, too, and the play explores her relationship between the men, the cemetery and their dark secret.
"It’s a tight text," Vetere said of his work, "and Eric is working with the actors the way a conductor works with an orchestra. Without giving any more away, ’Last Day’ is full of surprises. It is dark, with sharp dialog that moves quickly along. Writing a play is a communal affair. You either like it or you don’t. I hope that it will be liked. I can tell you this: discovering it within me has been a marvelous experience."
"Last Day", by Richard Vetere, directed by Eric C. Engel, will be presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theater, Gloucester, from July 21-August 7.: Visit the company’s website for ticket information.