Local writer’s second play, ‘Sealed Orders,’ opens at OJP
by Andrew Alonzo | email@example.com
Longtime Claremont resident and novice playwright Jean Collinsworth, 74, is finally getting her break on the big stage.
Her second play, “Sealed Orders,” which centers around the tragic death of 18-year-old Malcolm Melville, son of iconic author Herman Melville, is running through Sunday, December 10 at Ophelia’s Jump Productions, 2009 Porterfield Way Suite H, Upland. Tickets are $32 at opheliasjump.org.
The issue at hand is understanding why Malcolm shot himself to death on September 11, 1867. “Most biographers think it was [suicide] and we certainly take that angle,” Collinsworth said.
Inspiration for adapting Herman Melville’s life into a play came over time. While teaching American literature at Claremont High School from 1976 to 2006, Collinsworth researched authors before diving into a lesson.
“That’s when I began to see that these 19th century writers had pretty challenging lives and I thought, ‘How could the oldest son of this great American author … kill himself?’” she said. “Well of course, part of the answer is he wasn’t a great writer at that point and Melville’s life was not very happy.
“Then when I thought later about ‘Billy Budd,’ Melville’s last novel, which is about the captain condemning a young sailor to death by hanging; was there a parallel relationship between the captain and Melville, and the sailor and his son? There’s a possibility that Melville’s final novel in some ways helped him process what he’d perhaps done to his son.”
Intrigued by the topic and later finding other critics worked off the same idea, Collinsworth began constructing the story. Though she had no previous experience writing plays, decades of writing in other areas and teaching English helped her hone her skills.
Writing “Sealed Orders” was an on-again, off-again process for years Collinsworth said, with a majority of the time spent researching the Melville family. While much is known thanks to biographer Hershel Parker, questions still remained.
Parker “doesn’t offer, you know, all the answers, and the play doesn’t either,” Collinsworth said. “The audience has to kind of figure out what important influences were or were not.”
Collinsworth, a passionate theater goer and secretary of the OJP board of directors, introduced her script to founding artistic director Beatrice Casagrán during the pandemic shutdowns. Casagrán is always on the lookout to develop work by new playwrights, especially women.
“Ophelia’s Jump typically focuses on plays and musicals that raise important questions or deal with topical issues,” Casagrán wrote in an email. “As I found out more about Melville and his family, I became intrigued. So much of his work has very strong homoerotic references. We know that suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth are much higher than average. The Melville family quashed any talk of suicide around Malcolm’s death. But what if this was a cover up? What if they were trying to hide the truth not only about the act of suicide but about its cause? That is what seemed really interesting in this story and it was all plausible based on our research. So that’s the story we told. It is a human story. So relevant to all of us today and so sad.”
Steven Leigh Morris wrote this week in Stage Raw, “On the heels of Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos’s ‘The House of Final Ruin’ (2022), ‘Sealed Orders’ is another example of this theater taking a risk on a new play focused on little-known chapters of American history. The value of such artistic bravery can’t be underestimated.”
Casagrán helped the new playwright adapt the script and shape the play. The rehearsal process was nerve wracking, but Collingsworth enjoyed seeing the actors bring spice to her characters.
“When you work through the ideas and the details enough in your head that when you sit down it just kind of flows, that’s wonderful,” she said. “Then you know you’ve got something going and you’re not fighting it all the time. Then of course, the other wonderful thing is when you’re writing it, you’re kind of thinking and hearing what the characters are saying in your head. And so, to get them actually saying them in front of you in a costume on a 19th century set, it’s just a miracle bringing it to life.”
Collinsworth recalled reading a passage from one of Melville’s novels addressing how we are individuals with a purpose in life we need to discover. “That’s somewhat the theme of the play,” she said.
The play also hints subtly at gun issues in America, as well as problems faced by LGBTQ+ youth and climate activists.
“I would want them to think about this theme because it relates to human beings and also relates to countries and to the planet,” Collinsworth said. “But also to consider the dynamics of families and whether dynamics can contribute to someone’s suicide. And if you had a suicide, how do you work through it, get over it, or live with the memory of it?”
This is Collinsworth’s second production with OJP following the virtual debut of her short play “Home Work” in 2021. Having her second play mounted in-person at OJP is a “once in a lifetime thrill,” she said. “I just wrote the short one before and this. This is the only [full-length] one I’ve written so I’m kind of an elderly one-off playwright.”
“Sealed Orders” stars Kelly Franett, Jenny Buchanan, Sofia Levi, and David Duarte Guzman. The cast also includes Allison Meister, Jeff Sable, Ralph Merant, Stacey Patiño and Edgardo Flores. It premiered November 24 and runs through Sunday, December 10. Visit opheliasjump.org for tickets and information. A program is at flipsnack.com.