Homecoming Dance

Thom Thomas spent eight years writing his latest play, A Moon to Dance By, and now he’s finally home for its Pittsburgh premiere this month.

Fifty years ago, Thom Thomas stepped out onto the stage of the Hamlet Street Theatre in South Oakland. He was acting in a play called Teach Me How to Cry—his first acting gig. He was a 17-year-old kid from a small town—he’d grown up Thom Thomas, on Thomas Road, in Thomas, Pa., a tiny town in Washington County (the homogeneous names were coincidence). Later he spent a little time as an actor, manager and director at Little Lake Theatre near Canonsburg, but he had no idea what the future might hold.

Today, Thomas is 67 years old. He’s lived in New York City and now resides in Los Angeles. He’s a veteran TV writer and has a small library of screen- and teleplays (scripts for TV), but has now chosen to focus more on theater these days. This month, Thomas comes home to see his newest play, A Moon to Dance By, during its local premiere at the Pittsburgh Playhouse—the company that took over the old Hamlet Street Theatre site. After three decades in New York and California, Thomas has come full circle, and he’s right back where he started.

“I’m ecstatic, because [Pittsburgh]’s my hometown,” says Thomas. When he visited last year, he stood on one of the Playhouse stages and looked around. “Honestly, I got very emotional.”

A Moon to Dance By is also about reunions. The drama concerns Frieda Weekley, the eccentric wife of author D.H. Lawrence. History relates that Frieda was married and a mother of three when she met the young David Herbert Lawrence, who was then a student. Shortly after their meeting, Frieda left her home, her husband and even her children to be with her bohemian lover. After D.H. died in 1930, Frieda retired to their ranch in New Mexico. Then, in July 1939, Frieda’s son (from her previous husband) showed up at the ranch and stayed for four days. Although little is known of this historic meeting, the situation—widow and estranged son talking for the first time in years—inspired Thomas to fill in the blanks. He’s long adored D.H. Lawrence’s novels, and the incident seemed ripe for dramatization.

“The research took a long time,” Thomas recalls. The project started in 2000, and as he pored over Frieda’s letters, scenes and dialogue began to emerge. “I tried to get a handle on the voices of these people.” As a member of the Actors Studio, a membership workshop for working actors, Thomas would wrangle performers and ask them to perform scenes. He first held readings in two acclaimed New York theaters—Circle in the Square and the Actors Studio. A full-production showed in 2005 at the New Harmony Theatre in southern Indiana “to break the ice on it,” Thomas reports. Then, it was back to readings—this time at the theater Primary Stages in New York with the acclaimed actress Jane Alexander, winner of a Tony Award and nominee for four Academy Awards. But he wasn’t satisfied. “I knew there was something missing in the play, something I hadn’t tackled yet. I told the director [Edwin Sherin] that I just wanted to go away and rewrite it from page one. And he said, ‘Do it. You have the time.’ And what I came out with is, I think, a heck of a lot stronger play.”
Thomas has been a longtime friend of the Playhouse, and the staff has closely watched his play’s development. When the Playhouse offered to mount Moon, there was a long list of actresses other than Alexander up for consideration for the part of Frieda, but when Thomas saw her presenting at the Tony Awards, he knew she would be perfect for the role. Thomas remembers seeing her onstage in the 1967 world premiere of The Great White Hope, opposite James Earl Jones, and being awed by her abilities. “And now she’s going to be in my play!” he exclaims. “It’s just incredible.” Alexander shares the stage with Tony Award-nominee Robert Cuccioli and Gareth Saxe.

When he lived in Pittsburgh, Thomas made a big splash before moving on. He attended the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of Theatre (now part of Point Park University) and Carnegie Mellon University. He taught at Point Park in the late-1960s and early-’70s, became head of the theater-arts department in 1976, and became artistic director for several local companies, including the Pittsburgh CLO. Soon after, he left Pittsburgh for a six-month stint in London and then moved to New York.

His TV career took off in 1981, when an L.A. colleague offered him $15,000 for three weeks’ worth of TV writing—and coincidentally, it was for a Pittsburgh-inspired police drama, “Hill Street Blues.” He hoped to move to L.A. for only those three weeks, but jobs kept coming his way, and soon New York became a thing of the past. Still, his love for live performance persevered. “I love writing for theater,” Thomas emphasizes, “because in theater the playwright’s word is the final word. When you write something for television, [studios] sometimes don’t even notify you when it’s going to air. And you don’t even recognize what you’ve written. But your name is still on there.”

Today, Thomas doesn’t have a lot of family left in the region, but he likes to visit every couple of years. Now that Thomas has settled into Los Angeles’ sunny environs, his return East is marred only by low temperatures. “I heard we were having rehearsals in New York in January and performances in Pittsburgh in February, and my eyes rolled back in my head,” he says with a laugh. “I thought, what a great time for weather!”

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