C O N N E C T I C U T --- A R T S --- C O N N E C T I O N
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Feature: Matthew Lombardo
Playwright’s Real-Life Drama and Journey of Faith
By Lauren Yarger
When his play closes on Broadway this Easter Sunday, the irony of the timing won’t be lost on author Matthew Lombardo.
After all, High, starring Kathleen Turner as Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun with a faith crisis of her own trying to help a young boy kick his crystal meth habit, was inspired by the real seven-year addiction that almost robbed the playwright of his career, his faith and his life. A last-chance plea to God for help saved all three, so it seems ironic, yet fitting, that the play’s final curtain should come on the day when the resurrection’s triumph over death is celebrated. Without what Lombardo calls his own “miracle,” neither the play, nor he would be here today.
“I never thought I would get this again,” he said, gesturing around the Booth Theatre where we talked the week before the show was scheduled to open Tuesday, April 19. The playwright had seen success very early in his career, having plays produced and writing for the popular television soap opera “Another World.”.
His breakout work in theater came with the production of Tea at Five, his one-woman play about Katharine Hepburn, who made her home in Lombardo’s native Connecticut. The play premiered in 2002 at Hartford Stage starring Kate Mulgrew and enjoyed a successful regional tour. At the same time, however, Lombardo’s addiction to crystal methamphetamines was spiraling out of control.
The worst thing you can do with an addiction is take it on tour, Lombardo said. Suddenly no one wanted to work with him. He lost his career, his home and almost all hope that anything could change. It was a dark place in which he’d never expected to find himself.
No one had, in fact. His high school friends in Wethersfield, CT might have voted him “Least Likely Not to Have a Drug Problem” he kidded. The clean-cut, good looking man from a loving Italian Catholic family didn’t party much in his youth,
“I was so anti-drugs all my life,” he said. “I never touched a drug until I was 36.”
So what changed the course of his life? While in Los Angeles, he fell in love with a man who was a meth addict.
“He was addicted to meth and I was addicted to him,” Lombardo said.
Ironically, after he was hooked, the other man entered a drug rehab program and as part of the treatment, was prohibited from having any contact with Lombardo.
Only two things had made him feel good, Lombardo said: the man he could no longer have and meth. He drew comfort from the one he still could have. He was tired of being “an all-American boy and doing the right thing,” he decided and began taking the drug every day.
Close with his mother, he would work hard to pull himself together for their daily phone chats. She didn’t know what was wrong, but she sensed something wasn’t right. At one point, in 2004, he thought about getting clean and confessed his addiction to his mother. She couldn’t believe it. It was just so unexpected.
He wasn’t able to quit and the habit got worse over the next three years. Finally, his sponsor told his family that they had to break all contact with Lombardo. His mother would play his voice messages over and over again to hear his voice, but couldn’t call him back.
That put Lombardo over the edge and caused a turning point. He calls it his miracle. He prayed to God and said “If you can get me into a cab and to the hospital, I will fight this.” The emotion from this moment in the playwright’s life shows up in a scene from High where Sister Jamison pleads with God to meet her half way.
He did get to the hospital where he slowly, but surely, started on the road to recovery. It wasn’t easy. Because meth “destroys your mind,” he was unable to tell between reality and fiction. While he was using, he never once connected that the drug was what had destroyed his career and was threatening his life.
As things became clearer, he recognized a pattern of addiction that had been present in his life from the time he was a small boy. Siblings also struggle with addictions, so he discovered he was battling a genetic disposition as well as other factors, he said.
Also coming into focus was a new relationship with God. The god he grew up with had been represented as distant and punishing, he said. During his seven years of drug addiction, he had turned his back on faith.
“The god I grew up with is different from the God I know today,” he said. Now, he’s personal.
Also helping on a personal level are the brothers in recovery he has met through his 12-Step Program, Crystal Meth Anonymous. He splits his time between New York and Ft. Lauderdale, where his sponsor is. These folks have helped him learn how to do everything all over again – sober. Even going to the store to buy a candy bar for the first time can be a daunting task, he said.
The 12-step program includes belief in a “higher power.” Lombardo smiles broadly when relating facts about medical professionals acknowledging that this belief seems to make it possible for someone to be healed.
“There’s nothing I can’t handle now because of my relationship with God,” he said.
Proof of this came yesterday when producers posted an early-closing for High following less-than-favorable reviews and sluggish ticket sales.
"Despite the closing, I remain eternally grateful for this amazing opportunity,” he said. “Audiences have been extremely supportive of this project and I am so proud to have collaborated with this extraordinary groups of artists."
Not a day goes by that he doesn’t receive a message from someone who has been touched personally by High and the struggles of its character, young Cody, driven to prostitution and possibly murder while addicted. Recently, Lombardo related, a man in his early 20s languished at the back of the theater after one of the previews. When Lombardo identified himself as the author, the man thanked him for writing the play, and became emotional, saying that his brother was one of the “ones that didn’t make it.”
The play starts with the addiction, but becomes about faith and how to “get out of our way to let the miracle happen,” Lombardo said.
High plays its final performance 3 pm Sunday (April 24). What’s next for the playwright besides welcoming newcomers to his 12-steap meetings?
He’s working on an adaptation of six Greek plays, a vehicle for his specialty – a dynamite woman's role to be tackled by a powerhouse actress of a certain age, like Hepburn, Turner and Valerie Harper who garnered a 2010 Best Actress Tony nomination for Lombardo’s Looped.
Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.”
Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.
She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/. She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), CT Press Club's award winner of first place for web editing and second place in feature writing for the web in 2012.
She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web. Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle (awards committee).
A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.
HARTFORD STAGE Abundance April 4-28 Twelfth Night May 18-June 16
THEATERWORKS The Mountaintop April 4-May 12, 2013 Dr. Ruth, All the Way May 31-July 7 Times Stands Still Aug. 9-Sept. 15, 2013
YALE REPERTORY In a Year with 13 Moons April 26-May 18
LONG WHARF THEATRE Clybourne Park May 8-June 2 A Couple of Blaguards May 21-June 2
GOODSPEED OPERA HOUSE Good News April 12-June 22 Hello, Dolly! June 28-Sept. 8 The Most Happy Fella Sept. 20-Dec. 1
NORMA TERRIS THEATRE (Developmental Goodspeed) The Fabulous Lipitones May 9-June 2 LMNOPJuly 25-Aug. 18 Snapshots Oct. 24-Nov. 17
WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE The Dining Room April 30-May 18 The Show-Off June 11-29 Loot July 16-Aug. 3 Oblivion Aug. 20-Sept. 7 Room Service Oct. 8-26, 2013
THE BUSHNELL Looped May 7-12 Catch Me If You Can May 28- June 2 Billy Elliot June 18-23
THE PALACE THEATER Dreamgirls May 31 & June 1 Jersey Boys October 2013
IVORYTON PLAYHOUSE Other People's Money April 17-May 5 I'm Connecticut June 5-23 Footloose July 3-28 Dream Girls Aug. 7-Sept. 1 I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change Sept. 25-Oct. 13 The Seven-Year Itch October 3-Nov. 17
SEVEN ANGELS THEATER Next to Normal May 9-June 9
MUSIC THEATER OF CONNECTICUT The Cole Porter Project April 19-May 5 Master Class Nov. 1-17 God of Carnage Jan. 31-Feb. 16, 2014 The Fantasticks April 11-May 4, 2014
CT REPERTORY (UConn) Hairspray April 25-May 5
Nutmeg Summer Series: The Drowsey Chaperone June 6-15 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum June 20-30 The Music Man July 11-21
SHUBERT THEATRE (New Haven) Les Miserables April 17-21 American Idiot May 3-5 West Side Story May 31-June 2
DOWNTOWN CABARET THEATRE 8-Track: The Sounds of the '70s April 19-May 12
Children's Stage: Wizard of Odds April 13-May 19
SUMMER THEATER SHAKESPEARE ON THE SOUND As You Like It June 13-30
ELM SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar Aug. 1-Sept. 1
SUMMER THEATER OF NEW CANAAN South Pacific June 15-July 13 Grease July 19-Aug. 11 The Little Mermaid June 15-Aug. 11 The Cat in the Hat June 29-Aug. 11 Pinklaicious July 13-Aug. 11 CT FREE SHAKESPEARE TBD
O'NEILL THEATER CENTER Performances: National Puppetry Conference June 15, 16 Cabaret & Performance Conference July 31-Aug. 10 National Music Theater Conference