The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Romantic comedy to debut at Riverside

Do you avoid cracks in the sidewalk? Do you cross your fingers when waiting for an announcement? Have you ever thrown salt over your shoulder?

Does it usually work out for you? It never does for Sara Fine, the lead of Robert Caisley’s new play, Lucky Me, opening at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Performances will continue through Feb. 22, and Caisley will be at Riverside Friday and Feb. 1 for a talk-back after the show.

“Sara Fine has had 22 years of bad luck: Her cats disappear, light bulbs burn out, her fish die, and mysterious hockey pucks fly through her windows,” director Jody Hovland said. “To make matters even worse, her roommate is her very cranky elderly father who has a habit of driving away her boyfriends. Enter Tom, a TSA agent and optimistic new neighbor who is undaunted by it all and determined to break through Sara’s bad luck.”

Lucky Me has been produced only twice before, in New Jersey and Denver, and Riverside will continue its rolling world première as part of the National New Play Network, of which Riverside is a part, before the play moves to Seattle. The network supports the development and production of brand-new plays, both artistically and financially. 

That support came in handy when tackling the technical aspects of Caisley’s play.

“It has special effects that are really challenging for a small theater,” Hovland said. “It’s tempting to say, ‘We can’t do that,’ but this was a play that delighted me so much that I was willing to say, ‘Well, we’ll figure it out.’ A small-cast comedy is a precious thing; this had four characters, it made me laugh out loud, and it invites you imaginatively into a world that’s just a little bit quirky. I also like that it was a love story about two people in their early 40s. It had a deeply human quality in its treatment of loneliness and love.”

Also a help? Daily conversations with an invested playwright. A lot of that devotion stems from Caisley’s excitement that his new work is being produced at all. 

“I teach playwriting at the University of Idaho, and my students often ask me about getting plays produced, and I wish I had a formula to give them, but it’s not rocket science; there’s no sure way,” he said. “If you write a good play, it’ll find a way, but you’ve got to be quite aggressive in getting your work out there. If you sent out 10 scripts and hear back from one theater, you’re doing well. Learning to sell a play was harder than learning to write a play.”

Hovland and Ron Clark, the Riverside cofounders, said they were sold almost instantly on Lucky Me.

“We committed to this play some time ago, and I thought it was very funny, but I didn’t quite understand it, which is good,” Clark said. “If something is complex enough and has the sort of wacky character diversity that this play has, that’s good.”

Caisley said many theaters will not take a risk on a play that hasn’t won a major award and been given a “thumbs-up” from the New York Times. It is a huge disservice to audiences not to allow new work to be fostered and encouraged in the regional theater base, Caisley said, so he was thrilled Riverside, among other venues, decided to produce Lucky Me. 

“It takes a couple of productions to figure out a play,” he said. “You can do lots of readings and workshops, but actually having a theater produce the show in front of a live audience gets down to the nitty-gritty of the play and what’s working and what isn’t. By the time this production is finished, I’ll have seen how three different directors approached the show, three different ways costume designers costumed the show, three different ways actors approached each role, so that when the script is published, I can have a play that I am proud of and that I’m no longer thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not sure how I feel about that line.’ ”

Being a playwright herself, Jennifer Fawcett, the actor playing Sara, understood Caisley’s goals quite well.

“We had [Caisley] on Skype for our very first rehearsal, and I have been CC’ed on a lot of conversations between him and Jody,” Fawcett said. “When I have had questions, he’s been really great about responding and rethinking things. Having questions about a script is completely normal, so we needed to make sure we weren’t relying on the playwright too much. Audiences only get the play, so all answers should already be contained there.”

One answer the play doesn’t contain and Caisley doesn’t know is where the story originated.

“Usually, I can tell you exactly where a play came from, what the starting moment was,” he said. “And I usually have it written down somewhere. I have a tendency to steal all those little notepads and pens from hotels. I scatter them all over the house so I’m always within arm’s reach of a piece of paper.

“But with Lucky Me, I sat down one day, and I just started writing. I remember writing the stage direction of lights coming up on the stage, and you hear people coming upstairs, and the door is thrown open, and I have to describe who is coming in. And who comes in but a woman on crutches and a man in a parka helping her. And that was all I needed to start the play. If you think about the first act of the play, it’s really just me creating a series of mysteries for myself that I have to solve over the course of the play.”

As he solved those mysteries, Caisley had to make sure his play stayed interesting, that it fulfilled what he described as the necessary arrogance of playwrights.

“The horrifying thing about playwriting is to think about the arrogance that goes into it,” he said. “I say to you, ‘What I am going to show you for the next two hours is infinitely better than what you would have seen if you stayed home tonight.’ I feel a terrible responsibility to audiences, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

But he continues to wish it on himself, writing play after play, bridging genres and even helping future playwrights as a professor at the University of Idaho. Though he’s written his fair share of love stories, Caisley said, Lucky Me is off the beaten path.

“It’s an odd love story, certainly, but I think that’s kind of the nature of every love story,” he said. “I don’t think Hollywood tells us real love stories very often. They’re clean. And when they’re messy, they’re messy by design. My experience of love is that everyone’s got a really unusual, eccentric story that they could tell us about falling in love. 

“I think I was genuinely trying to write about how difficult it is sometimes to fall in love. It’s a wonder that it even happens because it’s exhausting. It’s quite time-consuming, being in love, so it’s surprising that people are able to hold down jobs and drive cars. So amid all the kookiness in the play, I’m hoping people will feel warmed that these two found each other.”