Blessing, Lee (Knowlton) 1949-
Blessing, Lee (Knowlton) 1949-
PERSONAL: Born October 4, 1949, in Minneapolis, MN; married Jeanne Blake, 1986; children: two stepchildren. Education: Reed College, B.A., 1971; University of Iowa, M.F.A. (English), 1976, M.F.A. (speech and theater), 1979.
CAREER: Taught playwriting at University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1977-79, and at Playwright's Center, Minneapolis, MN, 1986-88; Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, head of graduate playwriting program.
AWARDS, HONORS: American College Theater Festival award, 1979; Jerome Foundation grant, 1981, 1982; McKnight Foundation grant, 1983, 1989; Great American Play award, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985, 1988; Bush Foundation fellowship, 1987; American Theater Critics Association award, 1987, for A Walk in the Woods; Marton Award, 1988; Dramalogue Award, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1989; nominations, Pulitzer Prize and Antoinette Perry Award, both for A Walk in the Woods.
The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (two acts; produced in Washington, DC, 1979), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1980.
Oldtimers Game (two acts; produced in Louisville, KY, 1982), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1988.
Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music (two acts; produced in Louisville, KY, 1982, revised version produced in St. Paul, MN, 1984), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1983.
Independence (two acts; produced in Louisville, KY, 1984), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1985.
Riches (one act; produced as War of the Roses: A Play in Three Scenes in Louisville, KY, 1985), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1986.
Eleemosynary (produced in St. Paul, MN, 1985), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY, 1987.
A Walk in the Woods (two acts; produced in Waterford, CT, 1986), New American Library (New York, NY), 1988.
Two Rooms (produced in La Jolla, CA, 1988), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1990.
Cobb (produced in New Haven, CT, 1989), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1991.
Down the Road (produced in La Jolla, CA, 1989), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1991.
Four Plays (contains Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music, Independence, Riches, and Eleemosynary), Heinemann Educational Books (Oxford, England), 1990.
Fortinbras (based on a character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare; produced in La Jolla, CA, 1991), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1992.
Lake Street Extension (produced in New York, NY, 1992), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1993.
Patient A (produced in New York, NY, 1993), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1993.
Cooperstown (television play), 1993.
Patient A, and Other Plays: Five Plays, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1995.
Going to St. Ives, produced in Waterford, CT, 1996.
Chesapeake, produced in New York, NY, 1999.
The Winning Streak (one act), produced in Waterford, CT, 1999.
Thief River, produced in Waterford, CT, 2000.
Black Sheep, produced in Waterford, CT, 2001.
The Road that Leads Here (produced in Minneapolis, MN, 2002), Playscripts, 2003.
Snapshot (produced in Louisville, KY, 2002), Playscripts, 2003.
Tyler Poked Taylor (produced in Louisville, KY, 2002), Playscripts, 2003.
Whores, produced in Waterford, CT, 2002.
Flag Day, produced in Shepherdstown, WV, 2004.
ADAPTATIONS: A Walk in the Woods was adapted for television, WETA-TV, 1989.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Scottish Play and A Body of Water.
SIDELIGHTS: Lee Blessing is a Midwestern playwright who remained in his hometown of Minneapolis working in regional theater before relocating to New York when he was in his forties. Blessing's A Walk in the Woods, his most praised work to date, was nominated for both an Antoinette Perry ("Tony") award and a Pulitzer Prize.
When Blessing graduated from Reed College in 1971, his parents offered him the choice of a used car or a trip to Russia. He chose Russia. His award-winning A Walk in the Woods was produced in Moscow in 1989, three years after its premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in Waterford, Connecticut. Also in 1989, the play was adapted for television. The story about a Russian arms negotiator and his American counterpart is based on fact. During the 1982 talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Soviet Yuli Kvitsinsky and American Paul Nitze left the formal discussions to walk in the woods. The characters of the play, Andrey Botvinnik and John Honeyman, are contrasts. Botvinnik is an experienced and jaded veteran, while Honeyman is young, idealistic, and ambitious. Botvinnik insists that the two talk in an atmosphere of friendship, perhaps to regain some positive momentum in the talks. Edith Oliver wrote in the New Yorker that "one of the many pleasures the play affords is that of watching the molds crack as the characters deepen and, above all, connect." Weiss described the play as "a series of riveting discussions between two men possessed of exceptional intelligence, powerful egos, and intense but carefully disguised passions."
Eleemosynary features three generations of intellectually gifted women. Chicago Sun-Times contributor Hedy Weiss, who called this play "an intelligent, witty, and beautifully written piece," said that Blessing "has woven an intriguing web that illuminates each woman's struggle to establish her own identity and destiny while coming to terms with the complex bonds of mother and daughter." Dorothea, the grandmother and a New Age visionary, feels that her life was limited by the raising of her daughter, Artemis. When Artemis, a science scholar, becomes pregnant at age eighteen, Dorothea encourages her to obtain an abortion, but she does not, and the baby Echo becomes Dorothea's joy. The child and grandmother have a special connection, and when Artemis abandons them, Dorothea raises the child. When Dorothea dies, Echo and her mother are left to work out their mutual resentment and issues of abandonment. The title is a reference to one of the difficult words Echo handles with ease during a spelling bee, a gift she inherited from her mother and grandmother. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that Blessing "takes us back and forth in time, through the characters' various childhoods and marriages and illnesses and rages, until his trio can find some common ground." Time reviewer William A. Henry, III felt that "every woman, and everyone who knows and loves one, will recognize too familiar truths in the dilemmas Blessing depicts."
Two Rooms was inspired by the wave of hostage takings in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Michael Wells, a teacher at the American University in Beirut, is being held hostage in a Lebanese cell. His naturalist wife, Lainie, back home in the United States, sits on a small rug in a room from which she has removed everything else and telepathically communicates with her husband. Walker Harris is a reporter who wants to collaborate with her to break the government's shroud of secrecy surrounding the hostages, while State Department bureaucrat Ellen Van Oss, who has been assigned to her case, suggests to Lainie that her country would be better served if her husband were allowed to die, rather than make geopolitical waves.
A Chicago Sun-Times reviewer wrote fifteen years after the first production of the play that in many ways, Two Rooms "remains eerily prescient, even in its choice of buzzwords and images. It also chillingly suggests how this country's attention to terrorism has had a propensity for drifting. Clearly, for two decades before the September 11 attacks, American citizens had been the target of Islamic militants in one form or another. And these attacks were often met by flawed and fumbling diplomatic efforts." The reviewer praised Blessing for his ability to "capture the maddening nexus of personal trauma, government doubletalk, media opportunism, and pure victimization."
Blessing is a baseball fan who incorporates this love into several of his works: Cobb, Cooperstown and The Winning Streak. Cobb portrays baseball great Ty Cobb during three stages of his life, including the last when, as an old man dying of cancer, he kept a pistol hidden in his bathrobe. The Detroit Tigers centerfielder could be vicious. In 1912, he beat a fan who had no hands with which to defend himself, and he liked to intimidate the opposing team by sharpening his spikes on the dugout steps. Cobb referred to himself as "the most hated man in baseball." New York Times contributors reviewed both earlier and more recent productions of the play. Rich wrote that Blessing "knows how to talk baseball in the form of flavorful theatrical dialogue. In a small tour de force of writing, we're even taken with words on a trip around the bases—no video replay required—with a player whose naked aggression added a frightening dimension to the phrase 'stealing home.'" Bruce Weber said that "it is the play's contention that Cobb's furious demons were both the spur to his success as an athlete and in business (he was the first ballplayer to become a millionaire) and the source of a nagging self-doubt about this greatness that finally invaded his conscience." Henry felt that "Blessing's deeper concern is the America that shaped Cobb and that he in turn came to epitomize, an agrarian nation awakening into aspirations on the world stage. Simply put, Blessing's thesis is that Cobb changed baseball in exactly the ways that the twentieth century changed America, by bringing the techniques of science and the mentality of all-out warfare to what had been a pastoral pastime."
Blessing's Cooperstown is a television screenplay that starred Alan Arkin. The Winning Streak is baseball-themed in that one of the two characters, the father Omar, is a retired umpire. His son, Ryland, was conceived during a one-night stand with a young girl, and now the adult Ryland, an art restorer, has recently lost his job because of an act of clumsiness that cost the museum a valuable painting. In trying to reconnect with Omar, he lets him believe that he is married and a father, but in reality, he is a loser foundering to find his identity. Blessing was inspired to write this play when he saw how his father, dying of cancer, kept his will to live by rooting for the San Diego Padres, who at the time were in the midst of a winning streak.
Down the Road is about a husband-and-wife writing team who interview and write the story of a serial killer they visit down the road from the motel where they are staying. Back Stage critic Irene Backalenick wrote that "the theme—that our society rewards criminal with celebrity status—is gripping."
The theme of Patient A concerns AIDS. It was commissioned by the family of Kimberly Bergalis, who was infected with AIDS by her dentist and died from the disease. She was called an innocent victim of AIDS, which some gay men felt implied that they were at fault for having contracted the deadly disease themselves. Some felt that the testing of health-care workers that was implemented following Kimberly's death wrongly shifted the emphasis away from finding a cure. Henry said that Blessing's "appetite for moral complexity has never been more challenged, and his capacity to avoid settling for mere indignation has never been more welcome, than in Patient A.
Chesapeake, the story of New York performance artist Kerr, recalls the National Endowment for the Arts funding problems, and is a tome on the clash between art and politics, as well as freedom of expression and the impact of conservatism. Thief River, is a story that spans fifty-three years. As young men, the protagonists are lovers in small-town Minnesota. Gil is openly gay, while Ray remains closeted, leading a traditional life, marrying, and having children. They reunite as old men, comparing their lives and the road not taken. Don Shewey of the Advocate felt that Blessing "writes fine speeches … but views gay life from the outside in."
Among Blessing's most recent plays is Whores, inspired by the rape and execution of three Catholic nuns by a Salvadoran death squad in 1980. Two generals from that regime immigrated to Florida, with the federal government's blessing, and they were tried and acquitted in 2000. The play opens with a nun in red garters performing sexual acts in a porn movie, Blessing's way of calling attention to the obscenity of violence. He told Chicago Tribune contributor Michael Kilian that he chose "to use sexuality as the shock force in this play…. We are not so inured to viewing these sorts of things as members of a theater audience. Sexual elements still have the power to frighten, disgust, and outrage us." Flag Day, which premiered at the 2004 Contemporary American Theater Festival, is a play in two parts that focuses on interracial communications in America. Kilian called it the festival's "most provocative entry".
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Advocate, July 3, 2001, Don Shewey, review of Thief River, p. 59.
Back Stage, June 18, 1993, Irene Backalenick, review of Down the Road, p. 40.
Chicago Sun-Times, December 17, 1991, Hedy Weiss, review of Eleemosynary, p. 35; February 19, 2003, review of Two Rooms, p. 59.
Chicago Tribune, July 24, 2003, Michael Kilian, review of Whores, interview with Blessing, p. 9; July 22, 2004, Michael Kilian, review of Flag Day, p. 9.
New Yorker, March 14, 1988, Edith Oliver, review of A Walk in the Woods, pp. 80-81.
New York Times, March 31, 1989, Frank Rich, review of Cobb; May 10, 1989, Frank Rich, review of Eleemosynary; April 21, 2000, Bruce Weber, review of Cobb, p. E1.
Time, May 22, 1989, William A. Henry, III, review of Eleemosynary, p. 110; July 23, 1990, William A. Henry, III, review of Cobb, p. 78; May 17, 1993, William A. Henry, III, review of Patient A, p. 65.