- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

Mark Medoff started writing creatively by instinct at age 9. Today, he is one of America's most celebrated playwrights.

"I had four English teachers in ninth through 12th grade who enhanced my interest in literature, rather than destroying it," Mr. Medoff said during a Wednesday night speech at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, interviewed Mr. Medoff before an audience of about 50 people about the challenges of creating new work for the American stage.

Mr. Medoff, who is best-known as the Tony Award-winning author of "Children of a Lesser God," has written 26 plays and 11 movies. The world premiere of his new play, "Tommy J & Sally," will be produced by Woolly Mammoth and Theater J beginning Monday.

"You are a culture hero of mine," Mr. Shalwitz told Mr. Medoff. "I thought of you as the bad boy of American playwrights."

The play, which addresses racism and fame, was commissioned originally for "New Visions, New Voices" through the Youth and Family Programs at the Kennedy Center. Mr. Medoff said that because of differences in opinion, the Kennedy Center backed away from the play.

He decided to "workshop" the piece at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where he taught from 1966 to 1993. Actor Craig Wallace, who participated in the workshops, brought the play to the attention of Woolly Mammoth and now stars as Tommy J in its production.

"I create characters who are going through crucibles on a journey in an intelligent and entertaining way," Mr. Medoff said after his Wednesday evening appearance. "I'm past thinking I will change the world."

For about 25 years, Mr. Medoff wrote from 5 a.m. to noon almost every day. Today his schedule varies, depending on whether he is working on a film, such as "Children on Their Birthdays," which is being produced by Crusader Entertainment in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Mr. Medoff says he has continued to revise "Tommy J & Sally" during the past few weeks of rehearsal. He rewrote the piece 19 times.

"As soon as we started rehearsing, we did cutting and rewrites," the 61-year-old Las Cruces resident said. "The first few nights after the play opens, I watch the audience to see what I can glean from watching them watch the play. I know that no matter what I end up with, it will be classically imperfect."

While writing, Mr. Medoff said, he enters "an energized place of imagination."

"I'm acting it all out as I'm writing," he said. "I'm not conscious of it."

Washington actor Timmy Ray James, who with Washington actress Jennifer Mendenhall read scenes from Mr. Medoff's play during the event, said Mr. Medoff's detailed use of words sets him apart as a writer.

"He has an extraordinary use of language," Mr. James said. "I have to go to the dictionary to look up the words he uses. There is a depth and richness in his plays. His characters have clarity. It's clear who the person is."

Miss Mendenhall also praised Mr. Medoff. "With a writer who is really good, you just go, 'Aah,'" she said. "His plays are like driving a Cadillac. You have all this horsepower."

Mary Resing, literary manager of Woolly Mammoth, said she is excited to premiere a work from a writer such as Mr. Medoff. She admires the two characters in "Tommy J & Sally" for their courage as they "try to find their way in the world," she added.

"Mark is someone who is always interested in the deeper story," she said. "He's really interested in social issues. His plays are complex and multilayered. There are no easy answers in his plays. He is an American treasure."

Tickets to "Tommy J & Sally" cost $20 and may be obtained by calling 800/494-8497. Mention Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Theater J and pay $15.

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