Meet the Artists of Dreams of the Penny Gods: Callie Kimball

by Claire Reinhart

Callie Kimball has been here in Chicago during the lead up to the opening of her play, Dreams of the Penny Gods. She’s been a welcome face in the room, and we’re so happy she’s been here! Callie is an accomplished playwright- her plays have been produced and developed at Team Awesome Robot, Halcyon Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, Drama League, The Brick Theater, Project Y Theatre, Absolute Theatre, Washington Shakespeare Company, The Kennedy Center, Mad Horse Theatre, and elsewhere. Her full bio is here if you want to learn more (which you definitely should- she's awesome)! She graciously took the time to answer a few questions about the show and her process.

Q: Tell us about some things that helped inspire this piece.

This play was inspired partly by the monsters in Beowulf. I find it fascinating that Grendel even has a mother, and doubly fascinating that she's also a monster. I asked myself who would count as monsters in today's world, and it has to be someone who has killed a child. Then I was reading some of the testimony from the Casey Anthony trial, and it astounded me how that family had set up a whole infrastructure of lies and tacit agreements that, when viewed from the outside, were completely unsupportable and ridiculous, but that worked for them. So in this play I'm exploring how a criminal family behaves, and how they provoke emotional collusions and physical collisions of a higher order. Can someone from such a family ever escape? And if they escape, where do they run to?

Q: Why is it important to the story that this play is set in Maine?

It could just as easily be set in a small town in Idaho. It’s about people who are living off the grid, who come from poor circumstances and who make poor choices. Which could be anywhere, but my family happens to be from Maine, so it’s a very specific place in my mind, full of blue-collar (or no-collar) people scraping out a living for generations. The generations part of it is important—we see three generations of this family in this play. My family goes back several generations in Maine—they were carpenters, lumberjacks, and lobstermen. Maine seems to have a hold on people’s imaginations as a place of seclusion and natural charm. I wanted to show the dark side of that seclusion, and remind people that it’s not all postcard coastlines up here. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship borne of limited choices, and a lot of families dealing with that legacy of limitation. That said, it’s an hour from Boston, so it feels remote and urban at the same time, a place you could either escape to or escape from.

Q: What makes this play a good fit with Halcyon Theatre?

For one thing, director Jenn Adams is from Standish*, Maine, the next town over from where the play is set! So I think Jenn connected with the material on a level where it felt familiar. In talking with her about the play, I know she “gets” on a deep level who these people are, what fuels their cruelty and desperation, and how matter-of-fact they are when coping with scarcity in their lives.

Q: What makes this play relevant to a modern Chicago audience?

Halcyon’s commitment to putting diverse stories on stage for diverse audiences is inspiring, and I think there’s a lot in this play that people from many walks of life can relate to. When this play was done as my MFA thesis, I was surprised by the number of men who shared with me that the relationship between Kitty and both Bobby and Bug somehow echoes their own relationship with their father. Each family hands down a psychological inheritance, a specific worldview and set of rules for navigating that world, and in this play we get to see what it looks like when a particularly destructive inheritance is exposed and ultimately rejected. It takes strength to break from family. In this play, we see a 13-year-old girl who’s at best ignored and at worst abused, figure out how to grow her mind, find her voice, and keep hope alive in an extremely toxic environment. She uses every tool at her disposal to make sense of the situation she finds herself in. Any time we can see things through a child’s eyes is a chance to see ourselves anew. But for all of Bug’s inherent goodness, she is a product of her environment. It is not insignificant that her first act, upon gaining her freedom, is a criminal one.  

Q: What is one part of this play that you're excited to see come to life?

The fights. The fights are big and glorious. They start with a real or imagined slight that becomes a dance of escalating hurt and cruelty between Bobby and Kitty. This family has ridiculous fights when they run out of words. Half the time the words are lies anyway because the truth is too much to bear. If Bug is the heart of the play, Bobby and Kitty are fists that can’t open. They have a long history of fighting in a certain way, and there’s a moment near the end when Bobby goes “off-script,” when he takes things to a higher level by speaking the unspeakable—the truth—and Kitty is lost in the face of it. If Act One is a storm on the ocean's surface, where death is a possibility, Act Two is the same storm 100 feet below, where death is certain. Kitty and Bobby are like two monsters in the mud. Any time one of them tries to pull themselves out, the other drags them back in. Act One is about what they think they can get away with; Act Two is about what they can't.

Follow the link here for the event information on Dreams of the Penny Gods!

*An earlier version of this interview had Jenn's hometown as Saco, Maine. She's originally from Standish. However her mom, uncle, and two cousins are all based in Saco, Maine currently!