There are great domestic partnerships, and there are great artistic partnerships — rarely do the two overlap. Thomas and Judy Heath, however, are an exception to that rule. The married couple and successful playwriting team have become well-known in Charleston's theater scene, where they premiered Perfectly Normel People at the 2012 Piccolo Spoleto Festival. In addition, their 2013 work Perfectly Normel performed at the New York International Fringe Festival.
Since that time, the Heaths have continued to pursue their creative dreams. Last fall, they became Threshold Repertory Theatre's first-ever playwrights-in-residence after working closely with Threshold's executive director Pamela Galle. They wrote a short screenplay, The Chair, that was read for the first time at a Threshold event in February, and they're working on another while doing rewrites of their first play, The Sunset Years, which will open Threshold's 2014-15 season this October.
Right now, however, Thomas and Judy are putting most of their energy into their latest play, Bedroom Secrets. Unlike their previous works, which have featured fairly large casts, this piece uses only two actors: one plays a therapist and the other plays five different patients, both men and women, and each with a different issue related somehow to sexuality.
By day, Judy is a psychotherapist — she owns a counseling business, the Life Guidance Center, with Thomas, who is also a life coach. And the idea for the play came from her work. "Over the past five years or so, myself and my colleagues have noticed how many issues around sexuality are coming through our doors," she says. "With how things have changed in the past 10 or 15 years with internet pornography, Match.com, and gay marriage being legal now in many places — all these things have changed the texture of our work."
Internet pornography is a big part of that, she says. "There's a very, very widespread addiction to internet pornography — and among very normal people. It's infiltrated our society in a certain way that it's become an issue of widespread proportion." Judy adds that there seems to be more sexual experimentation with things like bisexuality, although "maybe it's just being talked about more."
Those issues show up in the patients in Bedroom Secrets. There's Tiffany, an endearing, funny surfer girl who has sex with men because of her low self-esteem. Then there's John, whose addiction to internet porn is making it difficult for him to be intimate with his wife. Throughout the play, John progresses in his addiction, facing the potential end of his marriage.
Although the couple wrote Bedroom Secrets together, as they do all their work, this experience was a bit different. This play has less of a linear plot than their other two works. In addition, the size of the cast really impacted the casting and production process. "That's a big lesson we learned from doing [Perfectly Normel People at] New York Fringe last year," Thomas says. "We had 10 actors, a living room, real food — we won the Theatermania audience favorite award — but you know these bigger shows are shows that big producers are afraid of. They think they won't make money."
So the couple intentionally went a simpler route for Bedroom Secrets. Since the Heaths only needed two actors, they were able to go after bigger names, and because of that there's a better chance that the play will get attention from outside producers when it plays in New York. At the advice of an encouraging friend, they hired a casting director in New York who helped them land two respected TV and film actors, Ashlie Atkinson and Stephen Wallem. Atkinson has been a regular on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and she also appeared in last year's Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. Meanwhile, the SAG Award-nominated Wallem starred in Showtime's Nurse Jackie from 2009-2014.
The Heaths couldn't be more pleased with the two performers. "It's hard to get this quality of actor and have them come down to Charleston," Thomas says. "They became the characters — Stephen was the 55-year-old Wall Street broker with marital issues. He was the 26-year-old girl with self-esteem issues."
While Bedroom Secrets is undoubtedly edgier than Perfectly Normel People and The Sunset Years, it's still got plenty of humor, Judy says. "It's really a comedic drama. That's one thing that's very important to us is that we write real people. And real people laugh even in the face of great pain. You need humor."
The Heaths held a workshop production of the play this past weekend at Threshold Repertory Theatre, and it will premiere in New York in August. After that, they'll come back home to Charleston to jump right into Threshold's production of The Sunset Years.
But while the bright lights and big city hold an undeniable appeal for the couple, Thomas and Judy are thrilled to be working so closely with one of their hometown theaters. "Threshold's been very nurturing for us," Thomas says. "We can't emphasize enough how grateful we are to Pamela Galle and everyone at Threshold for giving us a home."
Tickets to the world premiere of Bedroom Secrets at the New York International Fringe Festival are $18 and go on sale July 18 at fringenyc.org.