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Once loved, once spurned, a playwright now returns

SHE was wounded. And it went something like this. First there was the Pulitzer for ``'Night, Mother.'' Then there was a little less enthusiasm for ``Traveler in the Dark.'' Then came the retreat from the theater. Yes, there was a novel, the tepidly received ``The Fortune Teller,'' but there was no play. Three years of silence from one of the most promising young American playwrights.

So when Marsha Norman decided to break that silence and return to the theater, she did what any sulking child might do: She said she'd come out and play if everyone promised not to look. In theatrical terms, that meant a non-reviewable workshop production of Ms. Norman's new drama, ``Sarah and Abraham.''

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``Well, you can see why, can't you?'' asked Norman during the play's premi`ere run at the hardly out-of-the-way Actors Theatre of Louisville's Festival of New American Plays. ``I mean, it's really quite risky and bold.''

Since critics were barred from comment, the world will have to take Norman's word for it. For now. Norman is reworking the play, and she hopes to see a full-fledged production done by another regional theater sometime later. What can be revealed is that ``Sarah and Abraham'' takes its title and plot from the Old Testament narrative; that it is a play-within-a-play story of adultery and marriage; that it is in keeping with Norman's previous style - a highly structured, highly realistic, character-driven drama, well rooted in the well-made-play tradition.

What was also evident during the play's run - in its sophisticated and easeful melding of character and issue - was the return of one of the country's most articulate and intelligent theatrical voices. Ever since her first play, ``Getting Out,'' a taut look at female ex-cons, became the surprise hit of the 1977 Louisville festival, Norman has been seen as a comer. Six years later, when her controversial mother-daughter drama, ``'Night, Mother,'' earned the Pulitzer, Norman was hailed as the leader of a new wave of adventurous female dramatists. Now, her MacArthuresque return to playmaking marks a new chapter in her career.

``That's been my pattern - to get mad at the theater and go away for a while,'' Norman said in a recent interview. ``I seem to write better from the outside.''

Indeed, Norman's departure from and return to the theater is a work pattern increasingly common among the nation's playwrights - artists who find it ever more difficult to carve a full-time career from the theater's shifting commercial and critical pressures.

``Theater criticism has always been a fact of life,'' says Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. ``And so has the tendency among playwrights to take a couple of years off after they've been savaged.'' What has changed, say Mr. Jory and others in theater, is the kind of support a playwright can expect, critical and otherwise.

``It used to be if there were eight critics in a city and six didn't like a play, that left two that did,'' Jory adds. ``Now there is less and less middle ground - there are fewer critics, and audiences are looking for `peak' experiences. As a result playwrights don't find much relief beyond the unqualified hit, and hiatuses are just more common now than they were in the '50s and '60s.''

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Norman, a self-described ``natural rebel'' - during the interview she wore leopard-print loafers, a Rolex watch, and a punky black coat made in the Netherlands - got her start when Jory commissioned ``Getting Out.'' He had read a children's play written by Norman, then a free-lance writer and social worker, living in Louisville. It was Jory who approached Norman again last year, this time as part of the theater's ambitious and somewhat controversial new commissioning program. (Norman was one of three writers chosen.) The result was the much anticipated work-in-progress, ``Sarah and Abraham.''

``I was pleased to get the commission, because it gave me a way to get back to the theater in some formal way,'' says Norman. ``And I was afraid that I would not get back.''

Admittedly being ``crushed'' by critics who ``just slammed'' ``Traveler in the Dark,'' Norman says she approached her novel-writing hiatus ``as a way to escape the brutality of the theater. And I enjoyed that. What I did not enjoy was what came after. Yes, the novel was published, and, yes, it sold well. But I haven't had one good conversation about it with anybody. ... That's the point of theater - that confrontation. You get the impact of theater verbally, so you tend to respond in kind.''

It was partly that vibrancy of community that Norman says impelled her ``to return to the theater wanting to be as overtly theatrical as I could. I wanted to escape the world of theatrical realism. I wanted nothing more to do with kitchens and straightforward story lines about our snarled little lives. I'm not interested in how small we are but in how large we could be.

``I wanted to write about marriage, and here were people who had been married for 109 years. How did they do that? So I used the biblical myth as a device to add nobility, a sense of grace - those emotions of tragic drama - qualities which I think we've lost sight of today and certainly don't portray on stage. It was also a structural experiment. My most successful plays are the ones that have a strong structural element. Forms are very freeing for me.''

If Norman is picking up the stylistic threads of her craft in ``Sarah and Abraham,'' she is moving in a new direction topically - away from the mother-daughter relationship common to most of her plays. She credits changes in her personal life. The oldest child of strict fundamentalist parents, the Louisville-born-and-bred Norman, who now lives in New York, has recently married her third husband and had her first child.

``'Night, Mother'' was the end of what I had to say about the mother-daughter conflict. I wrote `The Fortune Teller' from the mother's point of view, about the loss of a daughter. But what I want to do now are adult plays. I've been one for a long time now,'' Norman says, laughing. ``I'm 41; I have a child; the balance in my life has changed.''

Though she seems sanguine about her personal life now, Norman remains wary about life in the American theater. ``There were years when I said, `What a curse it was to win the Pulitzer.' I would never say that now. Winning it meant I was able to support myself by writing and lecturing. But overall, life in the theater is much worse now,'' she says crisply. ``It's still a tough road for women in theater, because so many theaters are run by men and carry the values and issues they consider interesting. Louisville has always been different in that respect. Broadway, with very few exceptions, is now closed to the new serious writer.''

And that, says Norman, is ``good and bad news.'' No one blames playwrights for ``selling out when they write screenplays today,'' she says. ``That's pretty much accepted. And serious writers are coming back to the theater in out-of-the-way places, like what I'm doing in Louisville. They're keeping low profiles because they know, if they don't, they will get blown out of the water by critics.''

Not surprisingly, critics remain one of Norman's sorest sore points. ``Theatrical minds are quite rare, because very few people grow up in theater anymore,'' she says. ``And one of the things that's unique about playwrights is that, unlike novelists, they have to practice in public. The critical and media establishments have to be careful of handling such talents.''

About her own future vis-`a-vis critics, the new Norman is cautiously optimistic: ``Well, I think I can either write three more plays and be very careful about their productions, the way I was with ``'Night Mother,' or I can just let go and write 10 plays.'' There is a pensive, almost theatrical pause. One can almost see the old wounds healing. ``I think writing 10 plays would be more interesting.''

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