Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 3, 1975 · Page 75
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 75

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 3, 1975
Page 75
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Page 75 article text (OCR)

ft* Playwright on Wheels By Martha Smith WATERFORD, CONN. - Neil Yarema is a tough-talking, tough- writing man. His play "Lament for DoonrDoo" will be premiered later this month at the National Playwrights Conference in progress at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center here. It is the second Yarema play to be tackled here and it is the second coarse, street level slice-of-life with which the personnel here have had to deal. Neil Yarema and his plays must, indeed, be dealt with. Both man and play are gutsy and truthful, and. the playwright ruefully acknowledges that all too often he and his plays are too strong for general consumption. Yarema writes about a subject he knows well: confinement. He is a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair that restricts him to the outer fringes of nearly all the activities happening here. No ramps are present to enable the chair to be wheeled into the mansion, focal point of daily business. The brick walkways to two of the theater areas are a nightmare for the wheelchair-confined. Most degrading, perhaps, is the fact that Yarema can't even select his own food because the cafeteria line is up a series of steps and down a narrow, curvy hallway. Someone brings him his meals on a tray. But Yarema is tough and proud. His years of Air Force service prior to the swimming accident that paralyzed him 20 years ago seem to have reinforced the iron will he began to nurture as a child growing up in the European section of Allentown, Pa. He'll be damned if he asks the O'Neill administrators to put boards up the steps so he can enjoy the amenities showered on the other playwrights here. "I figured if they cared enough to think of it, they would have put a ramp up," he states flatly. "They knew I was coming and I'm in a wheelchair. It's their problem. I'm not about to ask." Another problem soon to be encountered here is the subject matter of Yarema's play. It is an autobiographical play, written around a gang of misfits who hang out in the neighborhood barbershop in the middle European section of Allentown. At the center of things is Georgie, confined to a wheelchair. Although Georgie is actually Yarema, the playwright cheated. To simplify things and make the role more manageable for an actor, Yarema made Georgie a paraplegic, paralyzed only in the lower limbs. "Lament for Doon-Doo" is the. second punch to the gut Yarema has given the National Playwrights Conference. The first was 'A Rainless Sky," in 1968. It was, he explains, "a composite of the problems faced by paraplegics and quads when they leave the hospital and go home." One of the first controversies surrounding production of the play was racial integration. "Integrating it caused the liberal establishment to go nuts," Yarema chuckles. "It sent them into a furor. They were so upset with the integration they couldn't see beyond it to the meaning of the play." Musing, Yarema says during one segment of writing "A Rainless Sky," he sat for 10 minutes wondering if he'd written about himself or the character. He explains: "The guy is in the hospital and his girl comes to see him. She follows him around, trying to get him to go home with her and get married. He keeps wheeling away from her and she keeps dragging him back. Finally, cornered and enraged, he screams at her: 'How can I let you love me when I hate myself?' "I thought about that line a long time." Interestingly, two actors associated with the 1968 premiere of "A Rainless Sky" went on to substantial success. They were Michael Douglas (now of "The Streets of San Francisco," and Cicely Tyson, Emmy Award winner for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The Yarema play was directed by Lloyd Richards who now is artistic director of the O'Neill center, and who directed the original Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Clamping down on an ever-present stogie, Yarema recalls the reaction to "A Rainless Sky." "That was the year I found out that people don't wanna hear almost the truth," he says in a tough guy voice edged with bitterness. "I only told 75 per cent of the truth because I was trying to spare them a little bit, but even that was too much." At one point in the play's action. Neil Yarema admits his plays are too strong for public consumption. Yarema explains, one actor is required to hurl another backwards out of a wheelchair. "The audience almost jumped to its feet to help the guy getting tossed," he laughs. "But the play was too strong. The audience didn't feel entertained. The experience hit them between the eyes with a baseball bat." Hitting people between the eyes is pretty much the Neil Yarema philosophy of survival. Although paralyzed from the upper torso down, he remains a brawny man. When he advises someone that he may hit him in the mouth if he pursues a line of conversation, there is the distinct impression that Yarema can back up the threat. His language is liberally sprinkled with four-letter words, as is the dialogue of his current play. "Lament for Doon-Doo" is one of. the X-rated plays being premiered here. There is a no-nonsense .roughly masculine quality about Yarema and his work. Any thoughts of pitying the lonely playwright in the wheelchair, sitting at the sidelines of the conference, are quickly abandoned. Neil Yarema is one of the realists of this gathering. He asks for no special attention. He's willing to cooperate with any reasonable requests and he's very much in tune with reality, a condition sadly lacking among the majority of the budding stars and coddled playwrights. As in his autobiographical play, Yarema is probably the most mobile participant in the conference. "Lament for Doon-Do" is a play about fear and confinement and the eventual triumph of the most highly handicapped over entrapment that clutches the other characters. "Lament for Doon-Doo," Yarema explains, really happened. The peculiar manner of speaking -adding the syllable "earz" in the middle of words was really a sort of fraternity jargon shared by the barbershop boys on the corner of Allen town's ethnic neighborhood. "This is a play about fear," Yarema says thoughtfully. "Doon-Doo kills himself before the play begins because the guy couldn't stand being in the neighborhood any- more. Nobody in the play goes anywhere but Allentown. Nobody except Georgie. He's the least mobile person in the play and the most mobile in life. He goes to Bermuda -anywhere he wants -- and has a good time. But it was fear of Allentown and that little gang on the corner that killed Doon-Doo." The gang at the barbershop, he adds, speaks in a language that sets them apart from the rest of the neighborhood, makes them like a fraternity with a ritualistic liturgy. It is a ritual from which Doon-Doo and, eventually, Georgie escape. Yarema has no delusions of grandeur about "Lament for Doon- Doo." He doesn't expect it ever will be produced commercially. "I don't expect acceptance of it here or elsewhere," he says. "People don't want to hear the truth. I tend to write plays that haven't a.chance of being produced. My characters speak from the street and it's not fashionable to be from the street and be a Pollack. There is no voice in the theater for the lower classes." When he isn't writing non-prod- -sj» ucable plays, Yarema works on films. He sold a screenplay that was produced in the Philippines -"A Taste of Hell" - that was, by his own estimation, a disaster. Most recently he ghostwrote a screenplay for a close friend. His home base has moved from Allentown to Los Angeles. Ghostwriting doesn't fit the Neil Yarema-Humphrey Bogart image. Secretly doing another's work for no credit has no place in the Yarema make-up, and he admits that he wouldn't have taken the assignment if a personal friendship weren't involved. "I like being the boss," he says, ·* clamping down on his executive- length cigar. And then with a laugh, he adds: "I'm really the last of the true greats. I've got the follow through to do a job and, if there's some question, I'm not afraid to knock somebody on his. ass." A case in point was the critique session held following the premier in 1968 of "A Rainless Sky." Confronted by about 30 top level critics, a number of other budding playwrights had been deflated and treated harshly, according to their evaluations. One playwright left the session in humiliation. When Yarema's turn came, he rolled into the center of the arena, faced the crowd of critics and, methodically opening his briefcase, withdrew a revolver and placed atop his closed case. "Now go ahead and ask your questions," he sneered at them. The gun was a cap pistol, but Yarema made his point. So why "does a 41-year-old disabled veteran continue to produce plays that have little to no chance of commercial success? Why does he continue as a lonely voice raging against injustices to the handi-,r., capped and the socially unaccepta-" bles of Polish Town, U. S. A.? "I'm a writer," he says simply. "And writers have to write. It's my biggest kick. It's better than fast cars and drinking and sex." Neil Yarema's "Lament for Doon-Doo" is a lament for all little men who cannot escape their environments and their fears. But it is a saga of one man's personal triumph. fc It is not a lament for Neil Yarema. State 19.75 .. . CHARLESTON. W.\'.-\.21rr

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