David Lee Nelson wants you to know his new play Folly Beach is not about him. OK, the play about a group of pals at a buddy’s second wedding came to Nelson when he was attending the second wedding of a close friend. And it’s true Folly Beach features a recently separated character (Daniel) struggling with his best man’s speech, as the recently separated Nelson did when serving as best man at his own friend’s wedding. Yet the local playwright — of The Elephant in My Closet and Status Update — says he is not Daniel. Folly Beach, his first full-length ensemble show opening at PURE Theatre Friday, is a creative work of fiction — a de facto reunion of 30-somethings complete with karate masters, handguns, extramarital affairs, binge drinking, and potentially life-threatening levels of asceticism, coming together around a theme wedding so embarrassingly indulgent it could only exist in fiction. It’s a chaotic mess of emotions — Nelson’s playwriting sweet spot.
“I’d just gotten back from the wedding, and I started writing,” he recalls. “But it kind of took off almost immediately from there.” Between starting the play five years ago while living in New York City to polishing it in Charleston as part of the PURE Theatre Lab program, his policy was if a single gag, relationship, event, or act of God could add something to the play, it got included.
“I wasn’t going to leave something that works out,” he laughs, “just because it wouldn’t really happen like that in real life.” If this seems like a lot for a single long weekend, it is. Plus there’s the subject matter. Folly Beach asks the question: why does anyone get married again? It’s a question Nelson feels not enough people ask themselves. “If we’ve already said all these things,” he wonders, “and it hasn’t worked out, why do we say them again?” Spoiler alert: the ending is noncommittal on the issue; different characters represent an extremely wide range of opinions on the topic, some expressed explicitly, some more in action than word. And the play wrestles with the idea, as the character Daniel says in a draft of his best man speech, that if “the definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results, why do we continue to do it?”
Nelson clearly doesn’t see the institution of marriage as necessarily good or bad. By the final scene, even the character Tom, a grumpy husband pining for his lost freedom, can’t wait to get home to his wife, admitting that after a hall-pass weekend with old friends, “I stop knowing what to do with myself.” Nelson won’t give yes or no answers to the big thematic questions; he prefers to let people decide for themselves.
Folly Beach stands in stark contrast to Nelson’s previous work as a writer, which is unapologetically autobiographical. That said, after reading a draft of the play, one of Nelson’s friends remarked that the characters all contained elements of the playwright’s own personality and sensibility, telling him, “They’re all you.” He doesn’t mind, as this sensibility helps the play retain a remarkable level of cohesion even in an outlandish plot.
And the reason this kooky-labor of love is being given it’s chance on stage, after years of crafting and rewrites, is thanks to PURE and director Sharon Graci.
“I love PURE,” Nelson says. “I love working with Sharon. To have the world premiere here is just really awesome.” He knows Graci will undoubtedly make decisions differently than he would, and he trusts her judgement. “The goal is for this thing to stand on its own,” he says. “We can do a Tennessee Williams play, and that play doesn’t need him any more.”
The evening of this interview, Nelson had just sat in on one of the first rehearsals for the premiere. His first glimpse of what’s lived in his imagination for so long, come to life. “I have the way I think these lines should sound in my head,” he says, “so it’s very exciting to see an actor get it, and hear them read it just how I thought it should be. But it’s also thrilling to see them read something and think, ‘Oh, man, I never thought of it that way.'”
Faced with the question of whether he had any desire to act in the premiere, however, Nelson doesn’t hesitate before responding that he’s still making adjustments, fine-tuning lines, and wouldn’t be able to do the work he wants to do as a writer if he was also acting. He admits the thought has crossed his mind, though, and doesn’t rule out the possibility in the future.
For now though Nelson’s focus is on Friday, and getting his five-year-old script ready for curtain call. It’s been an exercise in persistence. And while we’re itching to see Nelson’s madcap look at marital mayhem, we hope he doesn’t stay away from the spotlight for too long.
Folly Beach runs July 11, 12, 17-19, 24-26, 31, Aug. 1,2 at 7:30 p.m. $30/Saturday shows, $27/Friday shows, $18/Thursday shows. PURE Theatre. 477 King St. (843) 723-4444. puretheatre.org