Kesselman, Wendy (Ann) 1940-
KESSELMAN, Wendy (Ann) 1940-
PERSONAL: Born 1940.
CAREER: Playwright, author, composer, and songwriter. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, teaching fellow, 1987.
AWARDS, HONORS: Meet the Composer grants, 1978 and 1982; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979; Sharman Award, 1980; Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, 1980; Playbill Award, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; Ford Foundation grant, 1982; McKnight fellowship, 1985; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Popular Award, 1992, for musical theatre; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination, 1997, for The Diary of Anne Frank; New England Theatre Conference Major Award, for outstanding creative achievement in the American theatre.
Maggie Magalita (produced in Washington, DC, 1980; produced in New York, 1986), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1987.
(And author of music) My Sister in This House (produced in Louisville, KY, then New York, 1981; revised version produced in London, England, 1987; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1982.
Merry-Go-Round, produced in Louisville, KY, 1981, and New York, 1983.
I Love You, I Love You Not (one-act version produced in Louisville, KY, 1982, then New York, 1983; full-length version produced St. Paul, MN, 1986, then New York, 1987; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1988.
(And author of music and lyrics) The Juniper Tree: A Tragic Household Tale (produced in Lenox, MA, 1982, then New York, 1983), Samuel French (New York, NY, 1985.
Cinderella in a Mirror, produced in Lenox, MA, 1987.
The Griffın and the Minor Cannon, music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, produced in Lenox, MA, 1988.
A Tale of Two Cities, (adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens), produced in Louisville, KY, 1992.
The Butcher's Daughter, produced in Cleveland, OH, 1993.
The Diary of Anne Frank (adapted from the book), produced on Broadway, 1997.
The Last Bridge, produced in New Brunswick, NJ, 2002.
The Notebook, (produced in New York, NY, 2003), Dramatist Play Service (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of adaptation of The Black Monk, by Anton Chekov.
Franz Tovey and the Rare Animals, photos by Norma Holt, drawings by Eleonore Schmid, Quist (New York, NY), 1968.
Angelita, photos by Norma Holt, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 1970.
Slash: An Alligator's Story, pictures by Philippe Weisbecker, Quist (New York, NY), 1971.
Joey, photos by Norma Holt, Lawrence Hill (New York, NY), 1972.
Little Salt, pictures by Gerald Dumas, Scholastic Press (New York, NY), 1975.
Time for Jody, pictures by Gerald Dumas, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Maine Is a Million Miles Away, Scholastic Press (New York, NY), 1976.
Emma, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, Doubleday, (New York, NY) 1980.
There's a Train Going by My Window, pictures by Tony Chen, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.
Flick (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Sand in My Shoes, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.
Sister My Sister (adapted from the play My Sister in This House), Image Entertainment, 1995.
I Love You, I Love You Not (based on author's play), Polar Entertainment, 1996.
Mad or In Love, Fox, 2000.
A Separate Peace (teleplay; based on the novel by John Knowles), Showtime, 2004.
Also adapter and author of the screenplay for Los dos mundos de Angelita, translated as The Two Worlds of Angelita, 1982.
SIDELIGHTS: Wendy Kesselman began her career in the late 1960s writing children's books and also targeted her first play, Becca, which was produced in 1977, toward children. Since the late 1980s, Kesselman has focused her career almost entirely on writing plays and screenplays, except for the 1995 children's picture book Sand in My Shoes. Although Kesselman had written her previous children's book, Flick, more than a decade earlier, she remained in tune with her audience. Writing in Booklist, Carolyn Phelan noted that that Sand in My Shoes "strikes a chord that will resonate with many children and adults."
Although Kesselman's play Becca was largely considered children's theatre, a Contemporary Dramatists contributor noted that "older spectators responded to the implicit subtext of parental neglect and a brother's abuse of his sister." In the play, Becca is controlled and tormented by her older brother Jonathan while the siblings' parents never appear on stage but are intimated to be controlling and largely distant figures. The play, however, reaches children through Kesselman's music and lyrics, including songs for Jonathan's pets, which range from a parrot and bullfrog to snakes and spiders. Eventually, Becca stands up to her brother, who learns to treat both his neglected pets and his sister better. The Contemporary Dramatists essayist noted that "the most amazing moment in this startling feminist parable occurs when Becca rebels against her tormentor and it finally dawns on us that she is not a doll."
Kesselman's next play, Maggie Magalita, tells the story of an adolescent immigrant in New York City who experiences a culture clash with her Spanish-speaking grandmother while she struggles to be accepted by her classmates. In Merry-Go-Round, Kesselman continues her focus on childhood by showing how similar children can grow up to be quite different. She does this by having the adult actors reenact the earlier parts of their childhood lives. The Contemporary Dramatists contributor called Kesselman's 1981 play, My Sister in This House, "Kesselman's early masterpiece." Depicting the separate but parallel lives of maids and the mother and daughter for whom they work, the play is set in France in the early 1930s and depicts women constrained by the existing societal beliefs, which emphasize their domestic duties. As noted by the Contemporary Dramatists contributor, Kesselman "constructs the play in a dazzling series of parallels and contrasts, satirizing life in the drawing room and dining room while portraying with compassion life in the kitchen and garret."
In I Love You, I Love You Not, Kesselman continues to examine different cultures and generations when adolescent Daisy wants to learn German from her Jewish grandmother Nana, who is from the Old World and survived the Holocaust. But Nana has turned her back on her roots, including the German language of her persecutors, who murdered her parents and sisters. "As in Becca, Kesselman keeps Daisy's parents offstage, but she employs them as a formidable hostile presence," wrote the Contemporary Dramatists contributor. "Like the playwright's other domestic dramas, this work also compels our attention to the love/hate relationships within a family." Kesselman also wrote the screenplay for the 1996 movie version of her play, which Lael Loewenstein, writing in Variety, felt trivialized the Holocaust survivors. Loewenstein asserted, "what might have been a compelling portrait of anti-Semitism instead emerges as a sentimental coming-of-age story."
In 1993, Kesselman's The Butcher's Daughter was staged in Cleveland, Ohio, and was inspired by the story of French feminist Olympe de Gouges, perhaps the first woman executed for her beliefs about women's rights. Set during the French revolution, the fictionalized recounting of de Gouges's story tells a tale of two women: a butcher's daughter (de Gouges) and the daughter of an executioner, who beheads the butcher's daughter after his own daughter commits suicide. Throughout the play, Kesselman portrays a world dominated by men who practice capital punishment and incest and who deny women not only their rights but also ultimately often their will to live. The two women barely interact in the play, but their stories are linked by a singing narrator. Writing in American Theatre, Chris Jones commented that "much of the stylized dramatic language and action has a strong erotic charge, emphasizing de Gouges's free, cheerfully sexual personality. But sexuality in the play also has a much darker purpose, as Kesselman links physical desire with the lust for blood and power."
Kesselman's adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank was staged on Broadway in 1997. The famous true story is based on the diaries of a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with her family in an attic in Amsterdam during the Holocaust before finally being captured and eventually executed. Earlier versions of the play had been criticized for material deleted by Frank's father, such as Anne's thoughts about sex and her combative relationship with her mother. "Kesselman . . . has done a thorough reworking including material from the expanded edition of the diary published in 1991 (with most of the material restored that Frank had deleted), adding more Jewish references . . . and in general giving the play a less sentimental, more astringent tone," noted Richard Zoglin in Time. Writing in Jewish News, Donna Ezor commented, "It [the play] has finally realized its Jewish soul. And, as a result, it's a more realistic, more powerful and better play."
In her 2004 play The Notebook, Kesselman recounts the story of Warren Stone, a student and voracious reader who keeps his thoughts recorded in a red notebook. When he is invited by Mrs. Thorne to talk at a ninth-grade class, he falls in love with one of the students, Jenny, imagining that she is the character Natasha from War and Peace. Mrs. Thorne is also drawn to Jenny but abandons her special interest in her when Jenny's view of the world outgrows Mrs. Thorne's stilted view. At the same time, Warren's love for Jenny helps him to grow and experience life beyond the written word. Writing in the New York Times, Anita Gates felt that Kesselman sometimes uses "a little too much subtlety" in her depiction of the characters' relationships but added, "still The Notebook is a testament to the giddiness, even magic, of learning, and to the solacing thrill that can be found in poetry." On CurtainUp.com Macey Levin called the play "well structured and involving, though at times too episodic." Levin also noted that "Kesselman's dialogue rings true as she captures the nature of adolescents in their speech and sensitivities."
As in The Butcher's Daughter, Kesselman was inspired by another historical figure for her play The Last Bridge. Based on the story of Holocaust survivor Barbara Ledermann Rodbell, The Last Bridge tells the tale of a young Jewish girl who moves with her family to Amsterdam after the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. When Germany later invades Amsterdam, Barbara ultimately chooses to leave her doomed family, which refuses to recognize the threat to their lives, and pose as a blonde Aryan.
In a review in the New York Times, Naomi Siegel stated that The Last Bridge "wavers between the thoughtful and the self-consciously theatrical." "The Last Bridge, which Barbara crosses when leaving her family in order to survive, is a metaphor for leaving behind the past, both its good and bad, and embarking on a new life," wrote Bob Rendell on the Talkin' Broadway Web site. He added, "Kesselman fully conveys this in a brief coda which can be instantly understood emotionally by all Americans, whatever our family histories."
In addition to the screenplay for her play I Love You, I Love You Not, Kesselman has written several other screenplays. Her 1995 screenplay Sister My Sister—adapted from her play My Sister in This House—is based on the true 1933 story of a pair of French maids who were sisters and who murdered their employers. In real life, the maids, Christine and Lea Papin, posed for photographic portraits just a few months before committing the murder. Kesselman, who had seen one of the portraits, told Justine Elias in the New York Times, "I was immersed in it, obsessed. At the time, a psychiatrist called Christine and Lea a psychological couple. That was one of the things that drew me into the story, the complete merging of identities." Kesselman also adapted A Separate Peace, John Knowles's well-known novel about a boy's experience at a New England preparatory school in the early 1940s, for Showtime television. Although Marilyn Moss, writing on the Hollywood Reporer Online, felt that "much of the novel's psychological nuances are lost in the translation," the reviewer also called Kesselman's script "reverent" and noted that A Separate Peace "is moving enough to hold onto its family audience."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
American Theatre, April, 1993, Chris Jones, review of The Butcher's Daughter, p. 10.
Back Stage, December 19, 1997, David Sheward, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 44.
Back Stage West, February 8, 2001, Jesse Dienstag, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 17.
Booklist, June 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sand in My Shoes, p. 1786.
Daily Variety, September 10, 2004, Laura Fries, review of A Separate Peace, p. 17.
Entertainment Weekly, February 13, 1998, William Stevenson, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 62.
Jewish News, December 18, 1997, Donna Ezor, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1997, Laurie Winer, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 1.
Nation, January 26, 1998, Laurie Stone, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 34.
New Republic, July 17, 1995, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Sister My Sister, p. 34.
Newsweek, December 15, 1997, Jack Kroll, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 71.
New York Jewish Week, December 12, 1997, Aaron Mack Schloff, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 50.
New York Times, June 18, 1995, Justine Elias, review of Sister My Sister, section 2, p. 14; November 30, 1997, Bernard Hammelburg, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, section 2, p. 4; October 31, 1999, "Prescriptions for a Troubled Patient: The Theatre" (includes interview), section 2, page 1; June 27, 2002, Anita Gates, review of The Notebook, p. E7; April 6, 2003, Naomi Siegel, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, section 14NJ, p. 8.
Time, December 15, 1997, Richard Zoglin, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 110.
Variety, November 10, 1997, Lael Loewenstein, review of I Love You, I Love You Not, p. 41; November 10, 1997, Markland Taylor, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 53; December 8, 1997, Greg Evans, review of The Diary of Anne Frank, p. 119.
CurtainUp.com,http://curtainup.com/ (September 28, 2004), Macey Levin, review of The Notebook.
Hollywood Reporter Online,http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/ (September 28, 2004), Marilyn Moss, review of A Separate Peace.
Talkin' Broadway Web site,http://www.talkinbroadway.com/ (September 28, 2004), Bob Rendell, review of The Last Bridge.*