A play in town traces the interfaith relationship of Charles (who is Jewish) and Hope (who is Chinese/Filipino-American) from their first date through their next 50 years together and apart.
For someone who doesn’t live in Philadelphia, David Schulner certainly has made his presence felt here. He is the executive producer of the new NBC medical thriller, Do No Harm, which is set in and around Philadelphia. He is also the playwright of An Infinite Ache, which will be performed by Norristown’s Theatre Horizon from Feb. 8-17.
The idea for the play, which traces the interfaith relationship of Charles (who is Jewish) and Hope (who is Chinese/Filipino-American) from their first date through their next 50 years together and apart, first came to Schulner on a 17-hour road trip from Seattle to Minneapolis. He says that on the trip, “I became acutely aware of time — it struck me just how malleable it was, and I knew I wanted to capture that for the stage.”
Despite his extensive television pedigree — he has written and produced for over a dozen different series, including The Event, Kings and Desperate Housewives — he is no stranger to theater. “I started as a playwright before transitioning into TV,” he says. And An Infinite Ache is just part of his Jewish-themed body of work. He is also the author of Isaac, a dramatic retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac; and Ishmael, a sequel to Isaac that delves into what happened to Abraham’s other son.
Schulner drew upon that production experience to create a highly theatrical solution that would convey a sense of fluidity to An Infinite Ache: The play would take place in the couple’s bedroom, without intermission or blackouts. The passage of time would be indicated by what he calls a live version of “jump cuts” — Bryn Mawr native Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, who plays Charles, and Actors Studio graduate Bi Jean Ngo, who plays Hope, convey their aging process through movement and vocal changes, as well as assisting in scenery changes that illustrate the different phases of their lives.
One of the most critical of these phases is the transformation experienced by Charles once the couple’s daughter is born. “He is not deeply connected to his faith as a young man,” explains Erin Reilly, the artistic director of Theatre Horizon. “But once he has children, he starts thinking about the faith and traditions he is going to pass down to his daughter.” As a result, Reilly says, he pushes Hope to allow their daughter to become a Bat Mitzvah, which strengthens his connection to his heritage, “while his wife feels that her own culture is slowly being erased as their daughter grows up.”
Schulner made Hope Asian because he wanted to work with one of Los Angeles’ many Asian actresses. But, he, says, that decision also dictated that he draw from personal experience when determining the background of his male lead. “Once I determined that Hope would be Asian-American, I knew I would have to do a lot of research for that role. So I thought, let’s just make Charles Jewish — it would still give them the conflict I needed in their relationship — kids, in-laws, religion and ethnicity.”
Conflicts are a part of the play, but there is no better indicator of just where the heart of An Infinite Ache lies than its position in Theatre Horizon’s season — the middle of February. “This piece is a beautiful look at the minutiae of living with and loving another person for a long period of time,” Reilly says. “A lot of times we think of love as these grand gestures, but the benefits of giving yourself over to another person are found in the daily ups and downs of a relationship.”
And for those couples looking to do something different on the Feb. 14, Reilly has arranged for a special evening at the cafe in the theater’s brand-new facility, complete with a “bottle check” for those who wish to take advantage of the cafe’s BYOB status during the performance.