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What's in a Name
by Timothy Nolan

Production photo

Maria Deasy, Lauren Roth, Sutton Crawford and Lenny Thomas in a scene from What's In a Name

Author: Timothy Nolan

Description: Confronted by the past, the present, and the police, a woman examines the results of choices made many years ago and finds that the secrets that are the hardest to keep are the hardest to tell.

Year Written/Copyrighted: 2013
Date Added: 4/9/2013
Content Advisory: Gun violence, language
Keywords: Crime · Drama · Expressionism · Historical · Mostly Female Characters · Non-traditional/Non-narrative/Experimental/Post-dramatic · Politics · Sickness and Mental Illness · Small Cast Size · Social Issues
2 Acts, 90 Minutes
3 Females, 1 Male

NOTE: What's in a Name is fully protected by copyright law and is subject to royalty. All inquiries concerning production, publication, reprinting or use of this play in any form should be addressed to

Elaine Devlin
Elaine Devlin Literary, Inc.
20 W 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011

.

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From the Author:

What's In a Name was originally inspired by an article in the New York Times in 1994. A woman named Katherine Ann Power turned herself in to the FBI for a bank robbery in Boston in 1971. She wanted to get involved with the anti-war movement but instead fell under sway to a con man who brought her in to a scheme to rob banks and steal weapons for the Black Panthers. The whole thing was a lie, and in the bank robbery a police officer was shot and killed. The con man and other robbers were rounded up and sent to jail, but Power went underground and was never found.

What was more interesting what that she married and had a son while living under her assumed identity. So now the stakes are raised. She lived in the suburbs, she had her own business and even ran cooking classes. And all the while she’s trying not to lose her mind. She said that by the time she turned herself in it was that or suicide.

What intrigued me the most was how she would have dreams nearly every night when she would do something that slipped up and revealed her identity. I thought, reading this, that this woman hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in twenty-something years. And that was the germ of the play.

In the play, Aileen Doherty is a good girl, a good student, and wants to do good in the world, but has a hard time with the complications of that. She makes her choices, but then finds that as a woman living in her 50s, she can’t live with the choices she made in her 20s, even as, to paraphrase one of the characters, her choices grow choices.

When I pulled the play out in 2011, I hadn’t looked at it since 1996. So I’m reading through it and thinking, wow, so now it’s been thirty years and she still hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep.

The play went from being about identity to being about choices, which in the end brings it back to identity but in a different, deeper way. It was an unexpected discovery, and it was only possible with the perspective of time. I couldn’t have seen it when I first wrote it, but it was there the whole time. We are all the sum packages of our choices, either recent ones or ones made decades ago.

After I saw this, her whole story just started revealing itself, one episode at a time. How did she first establish her identity? Well, this happened. How did you get your job? Well, this happened. It was like she was sitting at my desk telling me her story, and it was as loopy but mundane as real life. She sets up the posts in her life and then just goes to live it… day after day after day after day. And she, like all of us, reaches a point when she starts to see the big question… what have I done with this one life I have and what will it end up looking like. And in her case, it’s so fractured that it’s a monumental effort to try to put it back together again. But she’s also dealing with the same things we all deal with, once we have some time behind us as well as in front of us.

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Original Production Information

What's In a Name was first presented on April 12, 2013 by the Variations Theatre Group at the Chain Theatre, Long Island City, New York, with the following cast and credits:

Cast: Maria Deasy, Lenny Thomas, Lauren Roth, Sutton Crawford
Director: Greg Cicchino

Review by Martin Denton

The premise of Timothy Nolan's taut and thoughtful new play What's In a Name is quite provocative: A woman has lived quietly as a single mom in NYC for thirty years, working steadily at a job at J. Crew, totally dedicated to raising her son, who is now grown and an attorney. But she hasn't slept well, not one single night in all of those thirty years, because she's been living a lie. Her name, her identity, everything is false—all assumed after she fled the scene of a crime perpetrated by her boyfriend, who shot a cop while she was driving the getaway car. She went underground and reinvented herself. But can the reinvention stick?

What's In a Name plumbs the details of this situation with real invention and insight. The journey that has brought this woman to such a singular place in life is explored in depth; Nolan does a terrific job filing in the blanks not only of how she got there but how she has built and maintained a kind of house of cards to protect her new, fragile identity.

The brilliance of Nolan's work here is its immediacy: he puts us directly into his protagonist's position (and shoes), and makes us confront the difficult question she is (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to grapple with. Should she confess her background to her son? Should she turn herself in to the police? Can she just keep going on living this assumed life? What's In a Name stimulated great post-show conversation among myself and my companion as we debated these issues. After thirty years, what good would it do to tell the truth, especially at the very likely expense of her son's happiness and reputation? Or is the Truth the most important thing here?

See or read this play (or both) and then have your own great discussion. Nolan raises important, fundamental issues that resonate perhaps even more today in the age of the Internet than they would have twenty years ago, when the events on which he based this work actually transpired. (You can read about the basis for the play in our interview with Nolan here).

 What's In a Name is currently being presented by Variations Theatre Group at one of NYC's newest venues, the Chain Theatre in Long Island City (most welcome and most welcoming!). Under the direction of Greg Cicchino, the production is exciting and effective, featuring a highly emotional performance by Maria Deasy as Susan Price, the woman who has been living under an assumed identity all these years. Sutton Crawford is fine as the young police officer who is trying to help her but who, in Susan's feverish imagination, may be her worst enemy. Lenny Thomas is sexy and menacing as the young man who led Susan to commit her criminal act, and Lauren Roth portrays the character Nolan simply calls "Em," a waitress who morphs into many of the important figures from Susan's past. This production offers a well-realized naturalistic approach to the material; I suspect that the play is such that other approaches, with a less realistic set and performance style, could also work well.

It's absolutely worth seeing, and also a piece that deserves a long life in productions elsewhere. It turns out that there is quite a bit in a name: we always have to face the person we see in the mirror every morning, whoever we've convinced the rest of the world that we are.

review of the 2013 production at the Chain Theatre, NYC

Excerpt from What's in a Name

CLARENCE

(Looking behind him)

Oh, yeah... he’s good and dead.

SUSAN

(Starting to cry)

Oh, God, Clarence, oh, God oh God oh God...

SUSAN starts to cry, starts to scream, as she tries to keep driving. The car swerves.

CLARENCE

(Over her screaming)

I had to shoot him! He was gonna kill you, baby!

SUSAN

Oh, God, Clarence!

CLARENCE

Go! GO!

SUSAN

You said no one would get hurt! He wasn’t going to...

CLARENCE

I said he was gonna kill you, baby!

SUSAN

You said no one would get hurt! You said...!

CLARENCE

(Brandishing the pistol)

Never mind what I said! He needed killin’ so I killed him, you got it?

SUSAN looks at him, terrified.

CLARENCE

Keep driving!

SUSAN

Okay, okay!

(Trying to get it back.)

Are we still staying with the plan?

CLARENCE

What?

SUSAN

I said...

She stops.

CLARENCE

What?

SUSAN

I said are we still staying with the plan?

CLARENCE

Yeah. Yeah.

SUSAN thinks about it, then:

SUSAN

You can’t leave me... I need to go with you!

CLARENCE

You gotta do what we talked about!

SUSAN

No, I can’t! I can’t leave you! I need to be with you!

CLARENCE

No!

(Slaps her)

Now stop it!

SUSAN cannot hold on much longer.

CLARENCE

Now, look, you just do everything like we planned and we’ll be fine. If the cops see us together they’re gonna know it’s us. So we gotta split up. I’ll give you some of the money and I’ll meet you in Detroit like we planned.

SUSAN

And that’s... where... your friends are?

CLARENCE

Yeah.

SUSAN

Your friends in the Panthers?

CLARENCE

Yeah.

SUSAN

And they’ll protect us?

CLARENCE

Yeah. And we’ll be together there. But you gotta stay strong until then! You gotta do like we planned and you gotta NOT say anything, because they’ll kill us now! The man knows it’s us and they’ll kill us, we’ll be dead...you and me. Got it?

SUSAN

Yeah, yeah... I got it.

CLARENCE

Okay. Good.

(Looking around)

Now... drive out to the spot and let me out... and I’ll see you... in a few days.

SUSAN

(Snapping)

No! No! I want to go with you!

CLARENCE

What did I tell you?

(Brandishing his pistol)

You follow the plan or you end up dead!

SUSAN looks at CLARENCE and starts to cry. CLARENCE takes her face in his hands again.

SUSAN

I love you.

She kisses CLARENCE.

CLARENCE

(Gently)

Didn’t I always look out for your bony white ass?

CLARENCE looks behind them, then leans over and kisses her cheek. He looks at her for another beat, then jumps out of the seat and runs off, exiting. SUSAN reaches for the tea to compose herself as EM enters with a stack of menus and menu cases.

SUSAN

(To EM)

I just came in here for some tea.

EM

(Without looking up)

Mmm-hmm.

SUSAN sips her tea.

EM

Every day for three weeks?

SUSAN sips her tea. EM sits next to SUSAN and starts setting menus.

EM

Where are you staying?

SUSAN

Oh... not too far from here...

EM

Honey, this is south Detroit. The only place to stay is far from here.

SUSAN smiles and sips her tea. EM continues inserting menus in cases.

EM

So, where are you staying?

SUSAN

Oh, um, with friends.

EM

Yeah? Where?

SUSAN

Um, kinda... here and there...

EM

Honey, you’re not on the street, are you?

SUSAN

Oh, no, no, no...

(Sips her tea)

There’s a church over... um, that way...

EM

Third Ebenezer?

SUSAN

Yeah, and... well, they don’t lock their doors at night...

EM

I know.

EM moves to SUSAN’s table and gestures to her teacup. SUSAN lifts it and takes a sip as EM cleans her table.

EM

So every night you go to Ebenezer and every morning you come here?

SUSAN is looking more and more scared.

EM

Honey, I’m not the cops and I’m not your mother. But I’ll tell you this... if he ain’t showed up in three weeks, he’s not coming.

SUSAN contemplates this. She starts to quiver. EM sees this, hands her a menu.

EM

Here, now, just relax. Here, look at the menu.

SUSAN takes the menu and screams as she sees it. She holds it up. On the back of it can be seen “WANTED BY THE FBI” and her picture. She turns it over and the same wanted poster - her wanted poster - is on both sides of the menu case. She looks over at the waitress and sees that what she has been slipping into the cases are not menus but wanted posters. SUSAN watches EM do this for a beat, then pulls another menu out of the stack and looks it over. She then takes in that EM has a large stack of wanted posters and is putting one in the front and back of each menu case, continuing to do this as they talk. After taking the situation in ofr a beat, she lunges for the pile of papers, grabbing a handful. EM pulls the rest of the pile away.

EM

Hey... hey!

SUSAN goes through the pile, seeing the wanted poster over and over and over again.

EM

Hey, honey, calm down, okay?

(Holds her arm)

Relax, alright?

SUSAN clutches the wanted posters to her torso. EM picks up the pile that’s finished and walks over to the other table, leaving four of them on it. SUSAN jumps up and follows EM, gathering the menus behind her. EM doesn’t seem to notice. She puts four more menus down on SUSAN’s table.

EM

(As she walks around)

Honey, you ain’t the first girl left on the side of the road... why don’t you just go home?

SUSAN

(As she follows)

I... no, I can’t. He... I...

EM

(Turns and faces her.)

Honey, you’re not pregnant, are you?

SUSAN

Oh, oh, no, nothing like that. I... I just...

EM holds the posters up to her chest, so SUSAN’s picture and the large, black “WANTED” are staring back at her.

(Glances at menus in her hand)

I can’t go back. I just can’t.

EM

(Returning to menu distribution)

Okay. You have any money?

SUSAN

A little. He... he has it all.

EM

Oh. Swell. Where do you live?

SUSAN

I’m... I’m not from around here.

EM

I figured that much out. Did you call social services?

SUSAN

Oh, no.

EM

The police?

SUSAN

Oh, no, no!

EM

You in some kind of trouble?

SUSAN, getting more scared, shakes her head. EM goes to first table and puts the menus down again. She then calmly reaches for SUSAN’s pile and takes them from her. She expect SUSAN to just hand them to her, as if she was helping her, but SUSAN pulls them away.

EM

Honey?

SUSAN puts her head down and tries to ignore EM. EM waits for her to hand her the menus. When she doesn’t, EM steps to SUSAN, reaches to her, and takes the menus. As she does...

EM

Okay...

She goes back to placing the menus around the tables. SUSAN just watches, helplessly. EM sees this, turns to her.

EM

(As she does)

Look, there’s a man and a woman who come in here every day around 4:30, looking for leftover food. They run some kind of ministry not too far from here. They seem like decent folks.

I think their names are Larry and Maddie. They live in one of the old building and they run some kind of soup kitchen. They’re kind of hippie freaks...

(Looks her over)

...then again, you look like you might fit in.

SUSAN looks at EM, more scared. EM finishes putting out the menus/posters, then gathers her tray and starts to head out.

EM

It’s better than sleeping in a church.

EM exits. SUSAN looks around at all the wanted posters. Lights dim except on SUSAN and the tables with the posters. SUSAN picks up a poster.

EM reeenters, stands behind SUSAN.

EM

This you?

SUSAN

What?

EM

This you?

SUSAN looks down at the poster.

SUSAN

Oh, no, no no...

EM

It’s cool.

(Reading the poster)

Bank robbery....interstate flight... murder... sought in connection with a bank robbery in which a police officer was shot to death. Should be considered armed and extremely dangerous.

(Puts poster down)

Wow.

SUSAN

Larry said I could stay here.

EM

I’m sure he did.

SUSAN

And I’ll have some money once my old man shows up. Larry said that’d help.

EM

He said that, huh?

SUSAN

Yeah...

EM

When did he tell you this?

SUSAN

Oh, the other night, he came down to help me with the dishes.

EM

He did, hih?

SUSAN

Yeah.

EM

He tell you anything else?

SUSAN

Just that he would help with the breakfast station in the morning and that if we hit any jams you could clear it up because you got that temp job down at City Hall... that it was great that we had someone like that to keep the man off our backs...

EM

Yup, it’s great that we have someone like that.

SUSAN

(Getting creeped out.)

Yeah...

EM

Your old man is dead.

SUSAN

What?

EM

Yeah. They were talking about it at work. They killed him in Texas.

SUSAN

WHAT?

EM

Yeah. They took his poster down.

She picks up one of the menus and, standing behind SUSAN, tosses it on the table in front of her.

EM

Yours is still there.

EM steps forward, hands SUSAN what looks like her check.

SUSAN

Oh, thank you.

SUSAN opens the check folder and sees an envelope.

SUSAN

What’s this?

EM

Open it.

SUSAN opens the envelope and takes out an official-looking document. EM stands behind her.

SUSAN

What’s this?

(Looks over her shoulder)

Maddie, what is this?

EM

This... is you.

SUSAN

No it’s not.

EM

It is now.

SUSAN looks again at the sheet.

SUSAN

It’s a birth certificate...

EM

It’s yours. It’s your birth certificate.

SUSAN continues to stare at it.

EM

That’s it. That’s you now. You can go back to the world.

SUSAN

(Looking in envelope again)

No... no, it’s not...

EM

It is as far as the world is concerned.

SUSAN

But... I thought I could just stay here...?

EM

For the rest of your life...

SUSAN

For... at least until...

She is lost in thought. She obviously never thought this far in advance. Then it hits her:

SUSAN

You’re mad at me. You’re mad at me over Larry.

No response. SUSAN subconsciously puts her hands on her belly.

SUSAN

I made a mistake.

EM

(Softly.)

Mmm-hmmm...

SUSAN

(Blurts out)

I should have had the abortion! I didn’t know you were going to throw me out!

EM

(Lying)

No one is throwing you out. We don’t do that.

(On more solid ground)

This is a chance for you, an new chance.

(Points to the paper)

No one is going to question...

SUSAN

He said we were all a family.

EM

I know. He does that.

SUSAN

He said you were cool with it, we can’t have any barriers between us and we’re all together as one...

EM

(Incredulous)

Smash monogamy...

SUSAN

Yeah. And when I found out what happened with Clarence... I just thought I had no place else to go and...

EM

(Cutting her off)

Now you do.

SUSAN

But I’m not... how do I know what she looked like? I’ve never even been to... how am I supposed to be her?

(Looks over the sheet)

Who is this person?

EM

She died.

SUSAN

Well, how am I gonna...

EM

I found it in the records. She died two hours after she was born. No one is ever going to look for that. That birth certificate is solid gold.

SUSAN

(Hands to mouth)

Oh my god...

(Looks it over)

I can’t.

EM

You have to.

SUSAN looks at the paper again, then shakes her head again.

EM

You’ve got no other choice.

(Leaning in)

She’s you. She has your hair, your eyes, your temper...

SUSAN

But she didn’t go to my high school, her parents aren’t named Tom and Shelia, she didn’t go to...

EM

Her history... your history... starts today.

SUSAN

What am I supposed to do with this?

EM

Get a social security card. Then a bank account. Then a job.

SUSAN

How long am I supposed to do this ?

EM

Step at a time. At some point maybe the revolution will come. Or maybe the statute of limitations will run out. Or maybe something else will happen. In the meantime, this is how you survive.

EM rises, crosses to SUSAN.

SUSAN

Susan Elizabeth Price. Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s actually within two weeks of my actual birthday.

EM

(Standing over her.)

That is your birthday... Susan.

SUSAN looks up at her.

SUSAN

Thank you.

SUSAN turns back to the paper. EM takes the folder back and starts to head out. She stops.

EM

Aileen?

SUSAN

(Turns to her)

Yes?

EM

Don’t come back here.

EM exits. Blackout

BoCoCa Festival Preview: A preview of the 3rd annual edition of this festival, held in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. We talk to festival co-founder Eileen Grelli and playwright Timothy Nolan.