When asked to explain why he decided to write the play “Teddy Ferrara,” Christopher Shinn says, “I thought a lot about committing suicide in high school and during my college years, and though I never really came close, I felt like I understood something about a psyche that wants to die.”
As the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Olivier Award nominee's remarks suggest, “Teddy Ferrara” delves into difficult subject matter from the get-go. The drama, which has its official world premiere Feb. 11 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre after a week of previews, is loosely based on the 2010 Tyler Clementi suicide case. Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to watch him kissing another man.
While many of the play’s specifics mirror actual events, Shinn says didn’t intend for “Teddy Ferrara” to be a straightforward dramatization of the Clementi tragedy. Instead, the plot focuses on a gay college senior named Gabe (played by Liam Benzvi) who witnesses a tragedy involving an eager-to-be-out freshman Teddy Ferrara (Ryan Heindl) whose roommate caught him in a compromising position with another man on campus. Also crucial to the story are Gabe's boyfriend Drew (Adam Poss), a transgender character named Jaq (Jax Jackson) and the university's provost and president (Janet Ulrich Brooks and Patrick Clear, respectively).
Shinn -- whose 2009 adaptation of “Hedda Gabler” made it to Broadway -– hopes “Ferrara” will serve as an exploration of “sexuality, desire and destructiveness” set on a college campus. The playwright, who is openly gay, is quick to stress that he drew as much inspiration from his own life as he did from Clementi's.
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“Because people were most aware of the Clementi case, I let my mind wander in that direction,” he told HuffPost Gay Voices in an email. “I wasn’t bullied in high school for being gay, although homophobia was part of the culture I grew up in ... I began to wonder personally about how much of my self-destructiveness had to do with structural oppression, and how much had to do with the universal agonies of desire, intimacy and rejection. Tyler’s suicide, in particular, woke up a lot of those questions inside of me.”
As for concerns that a gay teen's suicide might somehow be inappropriate for the stage, he adds, “To say that certain things shouldn’t or can’t be dramatized is to destroy our imagination’s ability to make sense of overwhelmingly complex social and individual realities.”
Shinn shrugs off the implication that his piece would serve as a tribute to Clementi in the same way as 2000's “The Laramie Project” did for slain gay student Matthew Shepard. Of course, whether "Ferrara” will have the same impact as “Laramie” (a New York City production of which is set to open later this month, with original cast members in tow) remains to be seen.
The play -– which, if Shinn has his way, could eventually make it to Broadway and beyond -- should fit nicely on theatrical resume that includes “Four,” “What Didn’t Happen” and “Dying City,” the latter of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Though he’s tight-lipped about the ultimate message of “Teddy Ferrara,” he nonetheless adds, “I think my work does try to convey what I believe about reality, and I'd certainly prefer if people saw things more the way I do … If you don't bully people, maybe they'll be comfortable with you even if you're very different from them in world view -- or some other way.”
"Teddy Ferrara" plays Chicago's Goodman Theatre through March 3, 2013. For more information, click here.