Nora Leahy hadn’t set out to be a playwright. As a college student she’d toyed with the idea of becoming a singer, a sign language interpreter and even a nurse. Yet here she is now a decade or so later with five plays on her resume and a imminent world premiere of her newest work “If You Forget Me” making its debut on March 20 on Hilton Head Island.
The dark comedy, produced by Lean Ensemble Theater, centers on 30ish Kate, whose orderly life is sent into a spin when her fiancé gets into a car accident and loses all memory of her existence. Even more distressing is the fact that he remembers the rest of his life, just not her. As a result, his selective brain trauma becomes her full emotional trauma, sending Kate running back to her childhood home for refuge. But instead of comfort, she must gird herself to ward off her “can do” mother’s pep talks and her sister’s well-intentioned efforts to push her recovery along. Complicating it all, a past boyfriend arrives attempting to reignite the old flame.
Here, Chicago-based Leahy, a Lean Ensemble member, offers her take on writing for the stage.
When did you first realize you wanted to work in live theater?
When I was 8, a dinner theater production of Maury Yeston’s “Phantom” made me want to be part of what I was watching. There were kids in the show, and I thought, “Oh, I could be one of them.” As a child I began singing in our neighborhood community theater musical productions, but I wasn’t really introduced to straight or non-musical theater until high school.
How did you get started as a playwright?
Initially I just had a good imagination, and I wasn’t very athletic, so I think theater was like a default thing I was good at (laugh)
After leaving college I began writing for a comedy show for a theater here in Chicago. I would do rewrites during the week, and the actors would have a couple of days to rehearse before the show on Friday. Then we’d do it all over again the following week. At the same time, I was getting my performance fix — singing at weddings and in choirs. Then in 2011 I started producing with Two Pigs Productions, a regional touring company I ran with Ian McCabe (who would also later become a Lean Ensemble member).
Even though I’d been writing sketch comedy, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could write a full-length play. But then four years ago, I was asked to do an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” for a youth production at the Santa Fe Trail School for Performing Arts in New Mexico. I wrote “Wonderland” and have been at it ever since.
What sparks ideas for a play?
I like listening to people on the train on the way to work. It’s a good place to eavesdrop on people, not just on what they’re saying, but how they talk to people, their speech patterns.
I also do a lot of mental writing in my head for years ahead of time. Along the way I collect ideas and stories in file folders on my laptop. Then as time goes on I take all these clues and see which ones are meant to go together until I’ve got a plot. But sometimes I collect these clues for one play only to realize they really belong in another. For example, the relationship between Kate and Matt in “If You Forget Me” was originally meant for a different play.
You’ve dealt with real life unsympathetic characters like Squeaky Fromme, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, in your play “Girl With A Gun.”
For that play, I was asked to write about a historical figure, and I chose her because I thought she was interesting. But I was also writing for a particular actress which limited the scope of characters I thought she’d be good to play. I wanted to take the focus off Squeaky’s role in the Manson family as much as possible, and once I started researching her life — for example, she was a child performer on “The Lawrence Welk Show” — I felt bad about the trajectory of her life. In the beginning, I thought this play would be a very dark comedy, but it ended up being more sad than funny.
That brings us to the element of humor that imbues the dark subjects like Squeaky and the opioid crisis in your some of your plays. Does that come from more than your comedy skit writing background?
I don’t think of myself as being particularly attracted to dark materials, but I am interested in how people reconcile tragedy in their lives and how I can produce something that talks about heavy or real issues but can also make us laugh.
My Catholic Irish upbringing was about using sarcasm and humor to deal with our feelings — an area of comedy I’m comfortable in.
How did the idea for “If You Forget Me,” a play about selective amnesia, come about?
The seed of the idea came to me about seven years ago when an image of Kate in the play’s final scene sprung into my head. Then, over the years, I’d come across stories about selective memory like the one in Mary Roach’s book “Spook: Science Tackles Afterlife,” where a woman in India who had drowned momentarily died and, when she woke up, asked for an annulment from her husband. Her soul, she said, had been replaced while she was dead. That tidbit made its way into the play.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a few different scripts. One is an adaptation of an existing novel and will be workshopped in Chicago next year. I’m also continuing development on a play called “Badlands,” which is about the opioid crisis in Philadelphia.
Even now when I go to see a play, good or bad, as soon as the lights go down and the play’s about to start, I get excited that something’s going to happen live and in front of me, and it’s never going to happen that way again.
If You Go
What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “If You Forget Me” by Nora Leahy; directed by Sarah Newhouse and featuring Libby Ricardo, Jenny Zmarzly, Diego Colon and Tamara Todres
When: March 20-23 at 7:30 p.m.; matinee is March 24 at 2 p.m.
Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head
Tickets: $40; $15 for students/active military; group rates available