Sunday, September 28, 2003

Persistent local playwright's 'One' opens season at Shelterhouse


By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's been 15 years since a local playwright's work has had a mainstage slot at Playhouse in the Park.

Playhouse producing artistic director Ed Stern will tell you that choosing One by Joseph McDonough to open the Shelterhouse season this week is not about showcasing a local writer. It's about producing a good play.

What: One
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 26
Where: Playhouse in the Park Thompson Shelterhouse, Eden Park
Tickets: $31.50 previews through Wednesday; $38.50-$46.50 starting Thursday (opening night). Any unreserved tickets are half-price day of show when purchased between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the Playhouse box office. 421-3888, toll-free (800) 582-3208 or visit Web site.
But it's still great to see a Cincinnati playwright come into his own.

For self-effacing McDonough, 42, who's been writing plays for as long as he can remember, all the way back to Purcell High School, and "seriously plugging away for 15 years," Thursday's opening is going to be a very big night.

One is the kind of show that's a great date night, astutely funny, occasionally dark and emotionally satisfying. A trio of surprisingly related monologues use the letters of a Civil War soldier to tie together three contemporary lives: the actor who plays him, an obsessed fan and a lonely young widow.

The "One" of the title refers to the monologue style of the play, but also to the lonely state of being "one," and even to another definition, of being united, whole.

McDonough has that kind of mind.

One won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been watching McDonough's steady progression for the past 10 years.

ETC connection

He's a well-known quantity on the local theater scene. If you've taken your family to the holiday musical at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, chances are you've seen his work (with composer David Kisor), from The Frog Princess to Around the World in 80 Days to Alice in Wonderland, which will be revived this year. Lately, he and Kisor have also been writing family musicals for The Children's Theatre.

A decade ago, McDonough was a member of the short-lived sketch comedy troupe Carnivores in Action. He primarily wrote. "I took enough theater courses (at the University of Cincinnati) to know I'm not an actor," he says.

When playwright Edward Albee came to Cincinnati for a residency in 1992, McDonough was accepted into the program Albee taught and did well.

At one point he had an agent dangling a sitcom writing job in front of him, but it sounded risky to a new father who preferred stage writing to television because in theater "words are king."

Creates own opportunities

Staying in Cincinnati has been the right choice for his career, McDonough believes. If there's any downside, it's that he wouldn't mind having a larger network of fellow writers.

"I love it here," he says. "I've been fortunate in creating opportunities here."

He won Ohio Arts Council artist grants. He started augmenting his income by writing bits for WLW drivetime deejay Gary Burbank (and he still contributes at least one piece a week) and reviewing an occasional play for the Enquirer.

But all the while, the married father of two had bigger things in his heart and mind. A few years ago, he and wife Lori took a big gulp and a leap of faith. He quit his day job with a legal publishing company (he still freelances) and made the commitment to earn his living as a writer.

While family musicals were bread and butter, McDonough began to try his hand at full-length plays about big themes. "Writing about your life is not going to cut it," he laughs, "unless you've had a more interesting life than mine."

His early scripts had a wide vein of comedy and heightened situations. Those include a commission from Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's studio series and The Age of Discovery, which premiered at Georgia Repertory Theatre.

He started thinking about what would become One three years ago. "I filled notebooks with ideas for two years. Little bits of dialogue. Character notes."

With One, McDonough feels himself maturing as a playwright. "I feel more confident to do what's more difficult. I'm not interested in writing what I've written before."

One, he says, is a reach, and worth it. He isn't relying on that natural facility for comedy, he says and happily reports that through the workshop and rehearsal process "we've cut the funniest lines."

Thanks to the collaboration with the Playhouse, One is a good play, he says. "And it's more important to have one good play than 10 'pretty good' plays."

The Playhouse premiere, McDonough says, "is a big, welcome step. I'm hoping One has some legs, that it can branch out to other theaters and other cities."

With opening night upon him, the slightest frown crosses his face. "It's sold out and I don't have tickets. I hope (the Playhouse) put some aside for me."


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