Judy Heath was initially hesitant about writing a play with her husband Thomas. She had originally brought up the idea as a way to escape the pressures of her job as a psychotherapist, but when Thomas suggested joining forces, she couldn't help but imagine the disastrous possibilities. It's not that she didn't love her husband of 18 years, or that she didn't trust his theatrical know-how. She just worried that such a project might end in trouble.
Sitting in the City Paper office 18 months after beginning their joint venture, it's clear that Judy's worries were unfounded. The couple beams as they talk about The Sunset Years, which will premiere at the Village Playhouse on July 15. Loosely based on their own family experiences, the play is about a recently retired couple that tries to sell their home without their grown-up kids finding out about it.
Although this is the first play they've written together, the Heaths are no strangers to theater. In fact, they met while acting in a play in New York. Thomas has made a name for himself in local productions like Rounding Third, Speed the Plow, and The Weir, while Judy has built up her counseling career. She's written two books, the latest of which explores grief in America, called No Time for Tears.
"I have to leave some of the sadness and anxiety I deal with at work. I've worked hard not to carry it home with me," Judy says. "We would meet over dinner and whip out the play, and it would be like a whole 'nother world we would escape into."
They became regulars at local restaurants and workshopped in their living room. They discovered each other's strengths — Thomas has a knack for dialogue, while Judy excels at story structure — and they learned to work together efficiently. Within six months, the play was completed, and they hosted a staged reading last August.
"It was really cool to watch the actors have to wait to say their next line because the audience was laughing so hard," Thomas says.
Among the crowd members were the Village Playhouse's Keely Enright and Dave Reinwald. They liked the play so much they offered to option it for the theater's upcoming summer season.
"She's brilliant," Judy says of Enright, who's taken on directorial duties. "We knew it was in good hands, and the cast is amazing." Samille Basler, Nat Jones, Sam Andrews, Noah Smith, Becca Anderson, Brad Leon, Tuan Le, and Tia Hong have been chosen to bring the characters to life.
"I think it's very important to have actors that you trust, and there are some amazing talented actors in this town," Thomas says. "And we did choose people who had good intuition." Although Thomas originally intended to play the eldest son himself, he was won over by Leon's interpretation of the character. "When we saw the actor do a staged reading, he did a totally different twist," Thomas says. "It's fascinating to me to sit back and be a fly on the wall and watch these actors talk about these characters and the ownership that they took to them, and say, "No, no, Rosemary wouldn't do that. I'm like, wow, really?"
Judy adds, "They taught us so many things about our characters."
The Heaths are already well into writing their next play, another family comedy called Perfectly Normel People (sic), which they'll host a reading of in August. Thomas has also quit his corporate job to focus on his new entertainment company, Heatherwood Entertainment and Media.
"We write for the joy of it. It's a joy, not a job," Thomas says. "If it's something that one day we could make money doing it, that's awesome, but that's not why we're doing it."