May 8, 2024

New Play by Princeton Graduate Tackles Questions About “Choice”

Winnie Holzman

By Anne Levin

In the nine years since the first staging of Winnie Holzman’s play Choice and the production that opened this week at McCarter Theatre, the issues the play examines, especially a woman’s right to choose, have changed — to say the least.

So Holzman, a successful dramatist for theater (Wicked), television (thirtysomething, Once and Again, My So-Called Life) and film (two soon-to-be-released adaptations of Wicked), has made some tweaks to the play. The comedy runs through June 2 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre.

“It was done in Boston at the Huntington [Theater Company] and I’m very grateful to have had that production. It taught me a lot,” Holzman said during a phone interview this week. “But the pandemic happened, and Roe v. Wade fell. The play now takes place during the shutdown. I have rewritten it a lot, but it has the same characters and the same ideas. I felt there was a lot to address that is new.”

A 1976 graduate of Princeton University, Holzman started ruminating about the issues that would lead to Choice about 16 years ago, when she was in between projects. Why, she wondered, had nobody written a play about the subject already? She posed the question to her daughter, then a recent college graduate and now a writer herself.

“We talked a lot about this stuff,” Holzman said. “I said, ‘I wish there would be a play about abortion that was not like a polemic, but just an exploration of the subject in a human way.’ My daughter said, ‘Mom, if you didn’t write that play, who would?’ So I thought about it. But I was worried. There was so much political heat. It was being used as a political football. I think history has shown that I had a point.”

Female friendship is another key theme of the play. The central character, played by actor Ilana Levine, is “a wife to an aging husband, a mother to an aimless daughter, best friend to the acerbically witty Erica, and accomplished writer on the cusp of breaking the story of her career — a story that is forcing her to reexamine the choices that have shaped a lifetime,” reads a description on the McCarter website. Holzman is married to actor Paul Dooley, who is more than two decades her senior. But the play is not specifically autobiographical.

“There are aspects of my life in there for sure, but there is a lot I made up. A lot,” Holzman said. “So please make that clear. There are things that are echoes of my life. I have a husband and daughter, like her, but it’s very much made up. There are always aspects of my life in everything I write, even Wicked. But this play is more emotionally than factually autobiographical.”

Once she decided to write the play, Holzman knew she wanted to approach the subject in a personal way. “I wanted it to have humor, because humor is a natural part of my life and everyone I know,” she said. “It’s a big subject, but I wanted people to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. I wanted a play that would encompass all those things. I came as close as I could.”

The Wicked movies, which star Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande, have wrapped, but Holzman still has some work to do on them before they are released. She is also involved in something for television, “which I can’t reveal,” she said. “It’s a new idea, and I don’t know if I’ll actually get to do it. I’m hopeful. I would like to do another TV show.”

Spending time in the town of her alma mater has been a pleasure for Holzman, who has fond memories of her time at Princeton. She studied creative writing, wrote a lot of poetry, and acted in several productions at the on-campus group Theatre Intime. After college, Holzman worked in sketch comedy in New York City, and enrolled in New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program before beginning her TV writing career with thirtysomething.

“It’s wonderful to be back in Princeton,” she said. “I did a lot of student theater at Princeton. A lot of my youthful theater activities were formed there and led to my career. I didn’t really think I was going to get another production of the play. And to get into McCarter is an amazing opportunity. It’s a wonderful place to work. Sarah [Rasmussen, McCarter’s artistic director and the director of Choice] is doing an amazing job, and it is staffed by fantastic people. The memories come back to me of being in that town. Things have changed, but there are things that will never change. Princeton is Princeton.”

On May 21 at 7 p.m., Holzman, Rasmussen, members of the play’s cast and Princeton theater professor Stacy Wolf will take part in a McCarter “Live at the Library” discussion in Princeton Public Library’s Newsroom. The focus will be Holzman’s inspiration for the play.

“It’s about the choices we make in our lives. Its not only about a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “It’s about other life choices too, and not just for women.”