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
This play is in the following collections: Plays and Playwrights 2014
2 Acts, 90 Minutes
3 Females, 1 Male
Read an excerpt
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 Literary, Inc.
20 W 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
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.
People who bought What's in a Name also bought:
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
ITN 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
ITN Podcasts about What's in a Name
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.