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theater: Hearing Voices

Playwright Douglas Jones hopes to bring us face to face with them.


"That Ol' Windbag," for young audiences, is being performed by the Carpenter Science Theatre Company at the Science Museum of Virginia and Jones' most recent adult work, "Songs from Bedlam" opens this week at the Barksdale Theatre.

In the last 19 years, Jones has written nearly two dozen children's plays, and he may be the only playwright who can claim four world-premiere productions of adult plays at the Barksdale Theatre.

How did someone with no initial playwriting credentials accomplish all this?

Jones graciously gives some credit to "the slender threads who connect us to other people," those who play an almost unnoticeable but life-changing part in our lives. For Jones, one such slender thread was director John Glenn, a childhood friend, who out of the blue in the '80s invited him to tour with Theatre IV. At the same time, Glenn asked him to rescue a terrible script about to go into rehearsal.

After long days of performances with the touring company, Jones spent his evenings rewriting the play in two weeks. Apparently he did a fine job; he was asked to write another play, and another. During the past two decades, while Jones went on to earn a master's degree and complete course study for his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, as well as launch a teaching career in English, he wrote, among others, 17 plays for Theatre IV.

When "Songs from Bedlam" opens Friday, May 2, as part of the first New Works for Virginia Artists Festival, it will be the first noncommissioned play Jones has ever written. For the seasoned playwright — whose "Bojangles" script was commissioned by Sammy Cahn and by lyricist and composer Charles Strousse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie") and performed at the Barksdale — this venture means entering uncharted waters. Jones admits he is a bit scared. "Songs of Bedlam" is not a children's fairy tale or a musical with tap dancing, like his other works.

"It's a new way of looking at things," Jones says. The play is a collage of monologues and songs inspired by the plight of the down-and-out and the mentally ill. Jones hopes to bring down the barrier between us and them, he says. "We see them as outsiders because they hit hard times — because they are mentally ill, or maybe don't have HMOs." Jones wants us to hear their voices, to hear their songs.

Jones says the play takes its name from Bethlehem Hospital, the principal hospital for the mentally ill in London in 1547. Shortened to Bedlam, the name came to mean the antics of its inmates. For a modest sum, Elizabethans could visit the hospital and watch the "lunatickes." Because of overcrowding, many mentally ill patients were released to the streets, a situation not so different from today.

Jones draws an interesting parallel, inviting us to the theater as paying witnesses of such fragile and broken souls. He is hopeful that the essence of his play will stay with us, he says. "When you see the homeless on the street, maybe then you will feel a little more sympathy."

To find the songs and words of his characters, Jones says, "Research and empathy go a long way toward creating characters." The haunting voice of a schizophrenic acquaintance has stayed with him for years and inspired the first monologue. "I would never hurt anyone," Jones says the man told him, but the rejection of women who learned of his problem made him angry, and the cycle of madness kept on spinning.

In creating the monologues, "memories and bits and pieces of everyone" become part of Jones. "I am the schizophrenic," he says, "the prostitute, the alcoholic."

Equity actor David Bridgewater takes on the role of director for "Songs of Bedlam," a role he's not entirely familiar with, but couldn't resist. He was drawn to the project three years ago after attending a reading of Jones' work. "It's the poetry of Doug's language," Bridgewater says — "how he so aptly touches human emotions."

Bridgewater and Jones are excited about what the cast brings to the production. Matthew Costello, Kady Fleckenstein, Jackie Jones and Robert Throckmorton each take on more than one challenging role.

"The uplifting part is that these characters survived and can tell their stories," Jones says. If all goes according to plan, Jones may become one of those slender threads who connect us to them. That is his own passionate song. S

The New Works from Virginia Artists Festival includes "Songs of Bedlam," which runs May 2 to 24 and the theatrical dance piece "Picasso's Women: Goddesses and Doormats," which runs on alternate days May 3 to 23. Shows take place at the Barksdale Theatre in The Shops at Willow Lawn. Tickets for one event are $18 and the discounted rate for both is $28. Call 282-2620.

"That Ol' Windbag" runs through May 15 at the Science Museum of Virginia. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased by calling 864-1400.

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