When Brian C. Petti submitted a working draft of his play Like Drowning to 5th Wall Productions' Rough Draft Readings program last year, he had no idea the company would end up staging a full production of the play less than a year later. "It was all 5th Wall," Petti says. "They set up the Rough Draft Reading and then they said they'd like to keep it in contention to produce it." Petti wasn't about to argue with them.
Jason Olson, 5th Wall's literary manager and technical director, knew he wanted to direct a full production of Like Drowning, which tells the story of Richard and Rodney, two men at both the very beginning and end of their relationship. "It's just a great story," Olson says. "I knew we could do something with it."
Two narrative threads run through the play, as present-day scenes of Rodney nursing Richard through terminal pancreatic cancer alternate with those of the two meeting and dating during the 1990s New York theater scene. "It's truly an ensemble piece to me," Petti says. "Both characters have their own journey that intimately involves the other."
The younger and older versions of the characters are each played by a different actor, as over a quarter-century passes between the start of the play and the end. During this time, the two men become very different people than they once were. The power dynamic shifts, as well, as Richard, emotionally brutal and manipulative towards a love-struck young Rodney in the earlier scenes, comes to be nursed by a self-assured older Rodney, who has discovered a calmness that Richard hasn't.
Petti notes, "I wanted to make sure this was a very particular story about two particular people. It's not indicative of all gay relationships or all unequal relationships or all theater relationships. The choices made by the characters are their choices, made from their specific motivations."
For Douglas McGill, who plays the older Richard and read for the part during the initial readings, the play is "about trust." "Rodney can't help himself in the early scenes," McGill says, due to his insecurity and infatuation with Richard. In the later scenes as Rodney cares for a deteriorating Richard, McGill adds, "It's not on Richard's terms anymore."
As 5th Wall has workshopped the play, communication with the New York-based Petti has been a constant. Petti watched the initial Rough Draft Reading over the internet and has communicated regularly with Olson ever since. Olson says, "When we decided the season, I asked [Petti] if he wanted to move forward and he agreed, knowing that the workshop would be mostly email and web-based conferencing and he would be coming for the opening."
Together, Olson and Petti have made several changes to the play, the most important being an alteration of its structure. Originally, Like Drowning skipped around chronologically; now the play's events unfold linearly. "I thought it might confuse the audience," Olson says, not that Petti ever lost faith. "What's great is that he trusted us with it."
Petti admits he's nervous about some of the changes. "I guess what I'm nervous about is the same thing I'm excited about," the playwright says. "Seeing how the play's changes affect the way it's received by the audience."
Overall, he's glad to have participated in the process, unconventional though it might be. "The play in your head bumps up against the real world, and you have to be open to react to the need for changes if necessary," he says. "We've had a healthy give and take throughout the rehearsal process."
While Petti's been open to the changes, his commitment to maintaining a focus on the characters hasn't wavered. "First, an audience has to believe in them as people," he says, "then hopefully they can see their own reflection in them."