Dallas writer Vicki Cheatwood's new play Ruth is a modern retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story from the Old Testament. What Cheatwood went through personally while writing it, however, sounds more like the Book of Job.
Debuting Friday, May 25, at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary as the centerpiece of Kitchen Dog Theater's 2012 New Works Festival, Ruth is the story of two women, one Latino and one Anglo, their friendship and how they deal with the ghosts that haunt their lives. When she started the play a few years ago after revisiting the Book of Ruth in a Bible study group, Cheatwood didn't know how close to home her scenario would eventually hit.
This past winter, as she was finishing the final rewrites of the script, her husband of 19 years, Mark Daves, was battling throat cancer. Unable to speak in his final weeks, he took to writing messages on his wife's iPad. One of his last was "work on Ruth." (Daves died March 22 at the age of 48.)
At the same time, Cheatwood's good friend, actress and acting teacher Gail Cronauer, was grieving the loss of her husband, also named Mark. Cronauer is now starring in Ruth.
"Here I am working on a play about widows and I become a widow in the process of working on it," says Cheatwood during an interview at a café near Kitchen Dog. "There's my friend Gail, who just lost her husband last year. How could this be that the two of us are here, doing this?"
Ruth comes not just from Cheatwood's personal experience with love and loss but from a larger family history, she explains. The play is set in two time periods. Act One takes place in Salinas Valley, California, during the Dust Bowl era of 1934, with a family from Oklahoma struggling to make a new life out west. "Some of my family members still have very hard feelings about how they were treated in California, not just during the Dust Bowl but afterward," says Cheatwood. The second act is back in Oklahoma in 2004, just after the state passed its restrictive immigration law. "Second Ruth," as Cheatwood calls her, is a migrant (played by Lisa Marie Gonzalez), trying to find her way in hostile territory. "It's a time jump," Cheatwood says. "Same shit, different day. The twist in the play, of course, is that both acts are the same people in two different circumstances. Naomi is white and Ruth is Hispanic. I had to start thinking, what does that mean? Who's the Ruth that I know? As often happens, you hear something and it lands very close to you."
KDT Artistic Company Member Tim Johnson directs the ensemble, which also features Barry Nash, Andrews W. Cope, Lisa Hassler, Clay Wheeler and Clay Yocum.
This play marks a big step for Cheatwood as a dramatist. It's her first fully produced mainstage show at Kitchen Dog, where she's been a company member for many years, doing whatever needs doing, from taking tickets to refilling the punch bowls at opening night parties. "It's exciting to think that for the first time, the party will be for me," she says. "And the excitement is tinged with a lot of sadness and this terrible irony that I finally get up there and Mark is not here to enjoy it."
Her Kitchen Dog association isn't a full-time job, so Cheatwood also works during the day in the children's area at the Dallas Zoo. When Mark was ill, she rose at 4:30 a.m. to write for a few hours before work. She'd grab another half-hour of writing and rewriting on lunch breaks.
Writers write through everything. "If you can write it, you can get through it," says Cheatwood. After her husband died, she started a Wordpress blog, Life UnMarked, as a place online to share good days and bad, as she enjoys an artistic triumph with her play while learning to parent 15-year-old twins Caleb and Ethan alone.
"During this whole horrible thing, Tina Parker (KDT's co-artistic director) and Tim Johnson were so nurturing and loving. They'd say, `Tell us what you need and we will make it happen for you.' When the rewrites were due and Mark was in St. Paul (hospital) for his final round of radiation, they didn't pressure me. I pressured myself. But they were `whatever you need.' When Mark told me to leave his bedside and go work on the play, I told the cast it felt like him blessing this whole process," says Cheatwood.
With Ruth realized, there are more things to write. There's a second draft of a novel to finish. And a trilogy of plays about Cheatwood's Oklahoma family members called The Chickasha Chronicles. (She'd already had a staged reading of the first play in the cycle, An Hour South, before Tracy Letts hit the jackpot with his Oklahoma family drama, August: Osage County.)
Don't judge Oklahoma by its current Tea Party-influenced politics, Cheatwood says. "What I want people to know about my home state, who the people really are, is that they're generous, shirts-off-their-backs kinds of people. If the politicians would get out of the way, people up there are strong, goodhearted and loyal Americans. Those of us who are Christians, we have to at least look at the teachings of Jesus. He says to take care of the widows and orphans, over and over and over again. This is part of my mission as a playwright: asking people to please remember who we are."
Amen to that.
Ruth opens at 8 p.m., Friday, May 25 and runs through June 23 at Kitchen Dog Theater. For tickets call 214-953-1055.