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Tina Howe, playwright who gave women center stage, dies at 85


Tina Howe, a playwright who gave center stage to the lives of women in works both poignant and absurd, becoming one of the most prominent female playwrights of her generation, died Aug. 28 at a hospital in New York City. She was 85.

The cause was complications from a fall, said her son, Eben Levy.

Ms. Howe wrote for years in obscurity — she was once dropped by an agent who had lost hope in her prospects — before her career took off in the 1980s. Along with Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein and Beth Henley, she became one of a relatively few female dramatists in the era to achieve success in the theater, a place that Ms. Howe described as “still basically a male bastion.”

She was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, first for “Painting Churches” in 1984 and then in 1997 for “Pride’s Crossing.” Her play “Coastal Disturbances” was nominated for the 1987 Tony Award for best play. But she said she was never after honors.

“I’ve never expected much fame or glory,” Ms. Howe told The Washington Post in 1996. “The nice thing about theater is that we get to explore and decorate our fantasies. The power we have! I can’t think of anything that comes close.

“All I want is the same license that Sam Shepard, David Mamet and Edward Albee have to go to the dark side,” she continued, referring to the celebrated male playwrights. “I would like to be allowed to show the pain and the neuroses involved in being a [modern] woman.”

“Painting Churches,” first presented by the Second Stage theater company in Manhattan in 1983, centered on Margaret “Mags” Church, an artist who returns to her upper-crust Boston home to paint a portrait of her aging Brahmin parents and, over the course of the play, comes to see them and herself for who they are.

“Were it rendered in an ordinary, flatly representational manner — the theatrical equivalent of, say, Norman Rockwell — this play’s landscape would be unbearably familiar: it’s another family drama in which the prodigal child returns home to resolve her relationship with her parents, even as the parents settle scores with each other,” drama critic Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times.

In a testament to her creativity, Ms. Howe instead wrote the play “in the dreamiest impressionistic spirit,” Rich observed. “It remakes reality with delicate, well-chosen brush strokes, finding beauty and truth in the abstract dance of light on a familiar landscape.”

The highborn Ms. Howe, who said she had hidden in a bathroom stall during her coming-out ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York and saw herself as having escaped her parents’ milieu, wrote the play shortly after her parents died and acknowledged that the work drew from her own life.

“When people ask me, how much do the Churches resemble my family?” Ms. Howe told the Times in 1983, “I always answer: all of it is true, but none of it happened.”

“Coastal Disturbances,” also presented by Second Stage with a cast that included Annette Bening, was a love-story-cum-comedy-of-manners set on a Massachusetts beach — a setting that required 20 tons of sand to be hauled into the theater.

“I love big, preposterous plays,” Ms. Howe told the Times, referring to her earlier plays “Museum,” whose cast numbered in the dozens, and “The Art of Dining,” which opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1979. “Actors have eaten — even cooked or served food — on stage before,” food editor William Rice wrote in The Post of the latter production. “But never so much, nor so continuously.”

In “Pride’s Crossing,” Ms. Howe presented the fictional character Mabel Tidings Bigelow, a nonagenarian who had once challenged the expectations of her highly proper family by swimming across the English Channel, as she looks back on the exploits and regrets of her life.

“I … very much wanted to write about a woman who has lived through the century,” Ms. Howe told the San Diego Union-Tribune when the play premiered in 1997. “I wanted to make some sort of statement as the century comes to a close about how we can achieve and what we’ve done and how we’ve missed.”

Mabel Davis Howe was born in Manhattan on Nov. 21, 1937. No one ever called her Mabel — she always went by “Tina,” her son said — and she legally changed her given name as an adult.

Ms. Howe grandfather, M.A. DeWolfe Howe, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. Her father, Quincy Howe, was a prominent radio and television broadcaster. Her mother, the former Mary Post, was an amateur artist who specialized in oil landscapes, and Ms. Howe recalled spending endless hours as a child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“On rainy afternoons when my brother and I were tearing the house apart, my mother would say, ‘Oh why don’t you go to the museum and play?’” Ms. Howe told the Kansas City Star. “So I grew up in the museum, and I knew it like the back of my hand.”

After an unhappy education at elite girls’ school, Ms. Howe enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1959. She also studied writing, trying and failing in her attempts at fiction.

In a short-story writing class during her senior year, she gave up on the genre and penned a one-act play, “Closing Time,” about the end of the world. A classmate and friend, the future Tony-winning actress Jane Alexander, took an interest in what Ms. Howe had written and directed and starred in a production on campus.

“Everyone shouted ‘Author, author’ at the end,” Ms. Howe told The Post, “and I ran up onstage and blew kisses at the audience, because I thought that was what you were supposed to do.”

Decades later, Alexander would appear in Ms. Howe’s play “Chasing Manet,” which premiered in 2009.

After graduating from college, Ms. Howe traveled to Paris, where she became entranced by the absurdist play “The Bald Soprano” by Eugène Ionesco. It “was like walking into the living room of my own house,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “This is the world that I have been trying to pin down, and Ionesco did it.”

In 1961, Ms. Howe married Norman Levy, a professor and writer. She taught high school English in Maine and Wisconsin while he pursued his studies, supplementing her work as a drama coach.

Ms. Howe’s husband died last year. Besides their son, of Maplewood, N.J., survivors include a daughter, Dara Rebell of Manhattan; and three grandchildren.

Her first play, “The Nest,” opened in New York in 1970 and included a scene in which a less than completely clothed woman is covered in the icing of an oversize cake. A male character licks the icing from her breasts. Theater critic Clive Barnes, writing in the Times, put it on the “short list of the worst plays I have ever seen.”

Ms. Howe persevered through further setbacks. “Birth and After Birth,” a play she wrote in the early 1970s, took a graphic look at childbirth and cast an adult actor as a 4-year-old boy. It languished for decades before it was staged in 1995.

“It’s one thing for men to be absurdist, because they tend to write about power and identity,” Ms. Howe said, “but for a woman to use absurdist technique with issues of child-raising or marriage, there’s something vaguely shocking about that.”

But gradually, Ms. Howe began to attract interest, and in 1983 she received an Obie Award for “The Art of Dining,” “Museum” and “Painting Churches.” Her first recognition as a Pulitzer finalist followed the next year.

Her career, she said, was about giving women “license to really explore themselves on the stage.”

POST AUTHOR: Emily Langer

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