‘This Is Us’ writer Bekah Brunstetter revisits her surrealist play about sex, virtue and predatory impulses

By Christina Campodonico

Iman Nazemzadeh as Richard and Larisa Oleynik as Miss Lilly in the Rogue Machine production of “Miss Lilly Gets Boned”

Can elephants experience PTSD? That’s just one question TV writer-producer Bekah Brunstetter’s surrealist play “Miss Lilly Gets Boned” ponders. Now playing as part of Rogue Machine’s current season at the Electric Lodge, the absurdist play (with a heavy dash of magical realism) also explores the complications of virginity after age 30 and predatory sexual impulses.

Miss Lilly (played by Larisa Oleynik) is a saintly Sunday school teacher saving herself for marriage. She falls in love with a seductively charming archaeology professor and widower named Richard (Iman Nazemzadeh; Nick Lee), whose wife was killed by a rogue elephant in Africa.

That elephant — embodied as a life-sized puppet operated by three performers — makes appearances throughout the play during sessions with animal researcher Dr. Vandalla Bhalla (Kavi Ladnier), who acts more like a sympathetic therapist than a hardened veterinary scientist. The paths of Miss Lilly and the elephant continue to intersect in unlikely ways. (Think elephant bones falling from the ceiling.)

While the premise may sound far-fetched, it’s actually based on a real-life New York Times Magazine article from 2006, titled “An Elephant Crackup?”, about grief-stricken, orphaned elephants.

“It’s about this generation of elephants that are growing up with no supervision because they witnessed their parents getting poached, and they have become this whole generation of elephants that have been lashing out and murdering tourists and killing rhinoceroses,” says Brunstetter, who reworked portions of “Miss Lilly Gets Boned” for its West Coast debut at Rogue Machine. “The article really posits that it’s like they’re human beings, they’re like children who grew up without their parents. … I read it and I was just like, ‘This is a play.’”

The play’s initial U.K. run in 2010 became one of Brunstetter’s earliest plays of note; since then she’s gone on to write and produce for the hit NBC family drama “This Is Us” and Starz’ surrealist serialization of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel “American Gods.”

Brunstetter also made a splash in L.A.’s theater world with “The Cake,” a provocative dramedy on baking and matrimony. Ripped from the headlines, that one explores the emotional dilemma of a North Carolina baker with conservative religious values who wrestles with making a cake for the wedding of a dear deceased friend’s daughter to another woman.

“Miss Lilly Gets Boned” similarly wrestles with traditional religious values through its titular 35-year-old protagonist, who after dutifully saving herself for marriage her entire life begins to contemplate changing course on her faith’s strict no-sex-before-marriage rule when the suave (and to a certain degree sexually predatory) Richard enters her life.

In one way, “Miss Lilly Gets Boned” eerily echoes the epidemic of sexual manipulation, violence, harassment and abuse brought to light by the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, though written over a decade before either came into being.

In another way, it’s almost like a thought experiment — Brunstetter’s way of imagining her life if she’d stuck with some of the formative Christian beliefs imparted by her churchgoing family and conservative community while growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Her father, former North Carolina Sen. Peter Brunstetter, supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage exclusively as between one man and one woman).

“Only until I was like 19 or 20, I was totally like saving myself for marriage and definitely went through high school in that mindset,” says Brunstetter, three years married, who playfully adds, “I’m not a virgin. … Sorry, mom.

“A lot of times when I write a play, I’m just putting myself in an exaggerated version of something that’s happened to me,” she continues, “so I think it was just me imagining who I would have become had I continued down that path.”

Returning to “Miss Lilly Gets Boned” was also an opportunity for Brunstetter to revisit an earlier “slightly younger, darker, more aggressive version” of herself, she reflects.

“It’s kind of like when you find a picture of yourself from 10 years ago and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that I used to wear that!’ But also you’re fond of the person, and you remember them very clearly,” she says.

Even so, Brunstetter struggled with not tweaking her play too much.

“It’s so hard, ’cause you’ll break your play. Like, if you keep trying to rewrite it, you’ll ruin it,” she says. “So it’s just really delicate work.”

These days, Brunstetter is busy working on more commercial projects for the screen and stage — a TV series based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” a movie version of  “The Cake,” and a musical adaptation of “The Notebook” — her self-care routine, and building her family through assisted reproductive technology, which she chronicles openly and with candor on her personal blog.

“It’s like a little purge place for me,” she says, where she can “feel accomplished in small ways” with daily or every-other-day posts.

But playwriting remains her preferred place to puzzle out life’s larger queries — like whether pachyderms experience PTSD.

“The plays are totally like therapeutic exercises for me,” she says.

Rogue Machine’s production of “Miss Lilly Gets Boned” continues through Oct. 28 at The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Tickets are $25 to $39. Visit roguemachinetheatre.net for showtimes.

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