‘Jimmy Dean’ playwright goes back to the llano estacado for new play

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Ed Graczyk
GRACZYK UNDER FIRE | Although his most famous play and his latest are both set in West Texas, Ed Graczyk spent only five years in the state 40 years ago. (Photo courtesy Russell Dyer)

Greenville Center for the Arts, 5601 Sears St. Through Sept. 12. ContemporaryTheatreofDallas.com.

Ed Graczyk is kicking the back of my chair.

Like every other member of the audience, he’s sitting in the dark watching the world premiere of Blue Moon Dancing, which opened last week at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas (see review below). But unlike everyone else, he has a reason to be a bit antsy. After all, he wrote it.

“This is the first time actors have spoken these words wearing costumes,” he says, emphasizing how, even though he spent three years writing the play, it’s still a new experience for him. Even at 69, it’s a thrill he doesn’t forget.

Graczyk had one of his biggest professional triumphs more than 30 years ago, when he saw his first major play, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, mounted on Broadway (and later filmed) with Robert Altman directing and Cher starring. If left him agog.

“I was the new kid on the block, about to have my first play produced on Broadway and directed by Altman. I loved Cher, I loved the entire cast — probably Sandy Dennis more than anyone. Sandy was always my first choice. God knows the movie kept the play alive. But Cher had done television and was used to making up lines on her own, so I had words with someone. But everyone got along fine.”

Graczyk began his passion for theater as a teenager, acting in community theater in his native Erie, Pa., then becoming a set designer. He became a playwright almost on a dare, first writing for children. After a while, he decided he needed to go in another direction.

“I needed to go somewhere I could use swear words,” he says. He took over a community theater, where he programmed edgy stuff like The Boys in the Band.

As with Jimmy Dean, Blue Moon Dancing is set in the fictional town of McCarthy in West Texas, which could lead a viewer to believe that Graczyk is himself a Texan (certainly those boots he kicked my chair with suggested as much). But aside from a five-year stint working at a children’s theater in Midland in the late 1960s, he’s a Midwestern boy, through and through. So what led him to set two major plays in Lone Star plains?

“Have you ever been to West Texas?” he asked rhetorically. “You know what it’s like. I tried to set [Blue Moon] in Ohio, but it had to be geographically remote. People 300 miles from a major city, they have dreams and hope that keep them alive and make them get out of bed every morning. I find the people down there, especially the women, to be so open with their emotions. But these people live everywhere.”

His characters, then, are closely analyzed, though not always observed from personal contact. He included a transsexual character in Jimmy Dean — controversial and groundbreaking at the time, though now popularly performed by high schools — as a reaction to an effeminate boy who he knew at the Pickwick Players in Midland.

“He was always being picked on but he had a strong core and was a very special young man and talented actor,” he says. “When you start putting this stuff together [for a play], you realize you’re walking through life looking forward, but your periphery takes stuff in. This kid came into view.”

Still, when he wrote Jimmy Dean, he had never even met a transsexual; he has been gratified that so many trans people have since said how accurate the emotional life of that character is.

Blue Moon Dancing also has a gay plot, first introduced by a raid on the local rest stop, but coming into focus when it’s clear one of the characters is tragically closeted, even though it’s never said aloud (Graczyk himself is coy about his personal life, quipping, “I am a 69-year-old enigma with borderline senility who has never been married and has no regrets”).

Graczyk shared agent Audrey Wood with Dallas’ own Preston Jones (author of the “Texas Trilogy”), though the two never met; but they also share the style of Southern-fried charm. Still, he bristles at the idea he write comedies.

“I don’t write one-liners, I write humor,” he says. “Humor comes out of sincerity. When things get serious, I get nervous and I write jokes naturally.”

That, and kick the chair in front of him.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010