This weekend, I caught the final show of The Stone Witch‘s Off-Broadway run at the Westside Theatre in Manhattan. Shem Bitterman’s new play, starring Dan Lauria, Rupak Ginn, and Carolyn McCormick came to life with an effects-driven stage production, and posed questions about what happens when your art and imagination take over your life’s experiences.
The play is all about a famed children’s book author and illustrator named Simon Grindberg (Lauria) who has been tasked with creating one last masterpiece book late in his career. Or any piece at all, really: he’s a decade overdue in turning in a new work to his publisher, and his editor Clair (McCormick) will stop at nothing in order to collect on the story in timing with the author’s 50-year writing anniversary. It’s sure to be a best-seller, after all. Her plan includes sending young, aspiring authors Simon’s way to “inspire” his creativity (or to essentially help ghostwrite his new book) in exchange for a foot in the door at the publisher. Which is how yet-unpublished writer Peter Chandler (Ginn) finds himself collaborating with his literary hero.
It’s unclear exactly why Simon isn’t turning in any work at all — we see him wrestle with ailments like writer’s block, illness in his old age, contempt for corporate business and rushed deadlines, and mental health struggles — but it’s likely some combination of all of the above. He works in a secluded home deep in the forest, hours from the city and its stresses. He’s had enough success in his fruitful career so far that he doesn’t have to worry about a new book from a financial standpoint, but his editor knows he’s only truly happy when he’s creating. Peter steps in to try to encourage Simon to jot down some ideas, but we see (through stunning stage visuals and larger-than-life sketches) that Simon’s mental state and wild imagination keeps him slipping in and out of real world consciousness.
Simon isn’t just eccentric, his demons are very real: he has vivid memories of growing up in extreme poverty, and surviving WWII. But some of his fears are also imaginary: book characters he dreams up — like the Stone Witch herself — haunt him like nightmares. The fact that he can so vividly call these creatures into being must be an everyday torment for him, but yet it’s likely that unbridled imagination that made him such a great and prolific children’s book author in the first place.
As a writer myself, I can relate to Simon and Peter’s storylines. They’re both creatives, but they’re on very opposite ends of the success spectrum. Peter is working a day job, trying to find some time on the weekends to work in some story idea-generation. He probably thinks he hasn’t made it yet because he’s too busy and presented with too few opportunities. On the flip side, Simon never needs to work another day in his life, and presumably could be enjoying retirement any way he so chooses. Or he lives alone with few responsibilities, so he can hide away for days just writing anything he dreams up. But he’s so beloved and in-demand that publishers, critics, and fans still want a piece of him. When they team up, they each realize they want a little but of what the other has — and they’re on their way to getting it.