Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

More Pulitzer Prize-winning productions

Monday, August 01, 2011

by Jacque Troy
Education Director/Literary Manager
Written for MCT's WORDPlay newsletter 

When Producing Artistic Director C. Michael Wright announced his plans for MCT to produce one Pulitzer Prize-winning play each season for five consecutive seasons, we all anticipated some truly captivating theatre.  What not even Michael anticipated was just how difficult it would be to choose only five from the list of impressive contributions to our dramatic literature canon.  As we've reached the end of his five-year plan, so gripping were the choices remaining that Michael decided we'd do two this season:  CRIMES OF THE HEART by Beth Henley and DRIVING MISS DAISY by Alfred Uhry.   Each had its own fascinating journey from new work to Pulitzer Prize winner to our stage.

 Beth Henley completed CRIMES OF THE HEART, her comedy about three sisters in a small Mississippi town, in 1978. After several unsuccessful submissions to regional theatres, she assumed it might spend its life on a reject pile in someone's office.  But, unbeknownst to Henley, a friend had entered the piece in the Great American Play Contest at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville. The play was chosen as co-winner for 1977-78 and performed in February 1979, at the company's annual festival. The production was extremely well-received and the play was picked up by numerous regional theatres for their 1979-80 seasons.

 At the end of 1980, CRIMES OF THE HEART was produced off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club for a limited, sold-out engagement of 32 performances. By the time the play transferred to Broadway in November 1981, CRIMES OF THE HEART had received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Henley was the first woman in 23 years to win the Pulitzer, and her play was the first ever to win before opening on Broadway. CRIMES OFTHE HEART went on to garner the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play, a Guggenheim Award and a Tony nomination. The tremendously successful Broadway production ran for 535 performances. The success of the play-and especially the prestige of the Pulitzer award-assured Henley's place among American theatre's elite.  As Henley wryly put it, "Winning the Pulitzer Prize means I'll never have to work in a dog food factory again." CRIMES OF THE HEART was also adapted for the screen in 1986 with a screenplay by Henley and a cast featuring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard and Tess Harper.

 In direct contrast to Henley's theatrical naïveté, Alfred Uhry had been writing musical theatre for twenty-five years before his first non-musical play, DRIVING MISS DAISY, became a surprise smash hit. It was originally slated for five weeks at a small theatre in New York City, but demand for tickets so surpassed expectations, it moved to a larger theatre, where it ran for about three years. Uhry won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In his preface to the published play, Uhry commented on the experience:  "When I wrote this play I never dreamed I would be writing an introduction to it because I never thought it would get this far ... When I wonder how all this happened ... I can come up with only one answer. I wrote what I knew to be the truth and people have recognized it as such."

 Indeed, the numerous critics echoed each others' praises of Uhry's sincerity, dignity, and honesty in exploring sensitive issues of racial, geographical and religious prejudice. DRIVING MISS DAISY went on to become an equally successful movie starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd. The 1989 film won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Makeup and Best Screenplay Adaptation for Uhry.  Mr. Uhry is also distinguished as the only American playwright to have won a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award and two Tony Awards.

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