Lucas Hnath





By Beatrice Williams-Rude






The 2015 Kesselring Prizes were presented at The National Arts Club on Sunday, Nov. 22nd. Recipients were: Lucas Hnath, Winner; and James IJames, Honorable Mention.


Linda Zagaria

The award was established by Charlotte Kesselring, in memory of her husband, Joseph Kesselring, a longtime National Arts Club member, whose play, Arsenic and Old Lace, remains so popular it has become the gift that keeps on giving. The prize, to be bestowed on playwrights who have not yet achieved national recognition, was created in 1980 and was awarded annually through 2009. Sunday’s ceremony marks the end of a six-year hiatus. After a welcome from NAC president Chris Poe, and introductory words from Linda Zagaria of the Kesselring Committee, excerpts from works by Lucas Hnath were read.


A segment from Death Tax, ably performed by Judith Roberts and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, was gripping. It was filled with black humor and was almost like a mystery in which one layer after another is peeled to reveal the truth.

Then came sections of Hnath’s much praised play, The Christians, featuring a brilliant performance by Andrew Garman. Despite the almost Shavian intellectuality, the work was so powerful that this member of the audience wept.

Then came a snippet from a work-in-progress, Doll’s House, Part 2, in which the playwright considers Nora’s fate after she famously slams the door.


Judith Roberts, Quincy Tyler Bernstine

Unlike Ibsen himself, who when asked what happened to Nora, pointed to a lonely, impoverished woman sitting on a park bench and said, “There she is,” Hnath reimagines her as having done very well financially as a writer and having no regrets about the life she left. Again that wonderful acting duo: Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Judith Roberts.

It should be stressed that all the performers were good, and some were excellent.

In the discussion following the performances, Hnath acknowledged the influence on his work of Ibsen, Shaw, and the power of argument.


Then came a segment of James IJames’play, The Most spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. IJames comes to the subject matter naturally—he spent years doing a one-man show, a history lesson, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. His play was entered into the competition by a Philadelphia theater company, The Wilma.
Twenty-four theater companies were invited to make submissions. Judges were playwrights John Guare and Lynn Nottage, and Lincoln Center dramaturg Anne Cattaneo.



Hnath, IJames, John Guare

An interesting exchange took place between John Guare and Linda Selman of the Kesselring Prize Committee. He’d asked a playwright whether a production had been set and Linda Selman noted that the work would have a reading at The National Arts Club. Guare acerbically responded that a reading was a device to dismiss a playwright, that a reading was not a production.

Artistic Advisor Michael Parva concluded the proceedings with an impassioned plea for people to attend the theater, any theater, any play irrespective of whether it sounds interesting, that theater is the life blood of our culture.


Photos: Shannon Nallan