Alfred Uhry is taking a break from a rehearsal of his new play, “Apples and Oranges,” and he is telling a story about his mother. His avuncular voice shifts to hers: “Just think, Alfred,” he drawls sweetly, evoking a moment in 1989 when he’d taken her to the movie set of “Driving Miss Daisy,” “you’re responsible for all these trucks.”
She was right — the production of the Bruce Beresford-directed adaptation of Uhry’s 1987 play had overrun part of the blossoming Atlanta neighborhood where the story, about the decades-long friendship between a Jewish matron and her black chauffeur, takes place. It’s also where Uhry’s parents raised him and his sister from the 1930s through the early ’50s; “Daisy” was based on the friendship between Uhry’s grandmother and her driver.
That Uhry’s mother lived to see his success — the film won four Academy Awards including one for Uhry’s screenplay — pleases him. At least in part that’s because he thinks he was, to his parents, “an enigma” — a Southern teenager who was enamored of Rodgers and Hammerstein and was a terrible athlete (“All the things that I liked go with gay, but I wasn’t gay”). He was a Jewish boy who, when he headed off to college at Brown, in 1954, says he didn’t know the difference between lox and bagels. (“There are Southern Jews that are very good Jews,” Uhry hastens to add. “Just not mine.”)
“Driving Miss Daisy,” Uhry says, “changed everything” for him; he spent lucrative years afterward writing for the movies and, at 75, remains busy with multiple projects. He is one of only a small number of writers who has won an Oscar, a Tony (two, actually) and a Pulitzer Prize. Now the playwright is headed back to his hometown with a world premiere of a new play, which shares elements with that first smash success.
The new play’s source material does not come from Uhry’s own life; it is adapted from Marie Brenner’s 2008 memoir, “Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found,” which centers on the fractious, volatile relationship between the author and her brother, Carl. The play offers an exploration of a complex relationship that affords an examination of familiar Uhry themes; here it’s Marie and Carl delving into their contentious past and present as they confront issues of life and death, along with ones surrounding Southern Judaism, family — and apple farming. The new play is, finally, about strong characters’ senses of self within worlds in which they don’t perfectly fit. The Brenners were raised in San Antonio, Texas, as secular Jews, but had each departed for an opposite coast for adulthood: Marie to become a successful, left-leaning East Coast investigative reporter; her archconservative brother to become a he-man farmer in Washington state apple country.
The book, with an extensive cast, international locations and great attention to apples, might not seem an obvious candidate for dramatic treatment, but Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, called Uhry and asked him if he would consider it. Uhry saw possibilities, and what interested him in particular, he says, was that the memoir was about a sibling relationship that he happened to share: a single brother and a single sister. Same-sex siblings, Uhry posits, can share experiences differently than can opposite-sex pairs. With a brother and a sister, he suggests, “there’s not exactly the same way to relate. And you are, perforce, put on different paths.” He says he had never seen this dynamic explored in the theater, and “Apples and Oranges” provided the opportunity.