How Playwright Sharr White Built A Broadway Domestic Dramedy From Family Photos

White created 'Pictures from Home' from photographer Larry Sultan's 1992 memoir of the same name. "It’s heartbreaking and also very funny."

Playwright Sharr White Michaelah Reynolds

First of all, how does one come by such a name as Sharr? By virtue of having imaginative parents with an unbridled penchant for eccentric appellations, Sharr White supposes. 

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Truth to tell, the 53-year-old playwright feels that he has come off a lot luckier than his siblings, being born between three brothers (Saill, Shell and Storn) and two sisters (Skye and Sunde). 

Of course, he has no idea what a Sharr is—although, before being bitten by the theater bug, he was in food services with a bunch of guys from Bangladesh and they told him Sharr is Bengali for bull, a word that any up-and-coming writer of plays would wisely be reluctant to embrace. 

Second of all, why is that name being batted about so much among knowing actors in need of meaty roles? White has a simple explanation. “When building characters, I really start from a very basic principle,” he says. “I want to see a great performer chewing on a great role. If you build a role that way for someone, there’ll be an attraction out there for someone great. That’s the hope. Make it big enough and funny enough and complicated enough, they’ll step into it.”

And how has that worked out for him? Pretty damn good. He began serving these full meals to actors with five seasons of his Showtime series, The Affair. That won Emmys for Ruth Wilson (Best Actress) and Maura Tierney (Best Supporting Actress), and it has continued to his recent Netflix five-parter, Halston, which won a Best Actor Emmy for Ewan McGregor. In between, on stage, there has been Laurie Metcalf’s work in White’s Off-Broadway/Broadway debut, The Other Place (an Outer Critics Circle nominee) and the starry turn-out for his Manhattan Theater Club offering, The Snow Geese (Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark and Christopher Innvar).

Burstein is aboard White’s current opus, Pictures from Home, which is set to open Feb.9 at Halston’s old haunt, the now theatricalized Studio 54. He’s famed photographer Larry Sultan, who, late in life (1983-1992), turned his cameras on his aging parents, Irving (Nathan Lane) and Jean (Zoe Caldwell), to explore both the American dream and his own childhood. The whole cast, all three of them, make plausible, year-end award-contenders, thanks to White’s work.

The immediate upshot of these snapshots was a groundbreaking 1992 photo memoir, called Pictures from Home, and that in turn led the Los Angeles County Museum in 2015 to pull together a posthumous exhibit of some 200 Sultan photographs, titled Here and Home

White caught the Home portion of the program and found a play forming in the pictures. “My first inspiration was this exhibit—because so much of the presence of the book was there. The captions for these photographs are what really motivated me. There was dialogue between Irv and Jean printed on the wall. It was taken from the book and from Larry’s recordings of Irv. 

“That’s when I thought, ‘Who are these people? What is this dynamic I have to explore?’ It’s all in the book. What’s important is that the book itself—all of the book—is a work of art. I took some dialogue from the book and used other dialogue as inspiration for many of the scenes.”

White believes that Sultan’s photographs were done not to uncover cracks in his idyllic childhood but to discover a different narrative—and he adapted the story accordingly.

“My play is not about exposing family flaws or family secrets. It’s about exploring Sultan’s narrative in the pictures of his family and bringing his own narrative into that relationship.”

Pictures from Home mixes comedy and drama. “I was definitely setting out to write a drama, but I knew it was very, very funny. Irv’s and Jean’s twists of logic are very funny, and they’re right there in the book—but funny in a way that breaks your heart. When Irv is almost desperately pursuing whether or not he’s limping and having that conversation with Larry—it’s heartbreaking and also very funny.” 

The trio assembled for this domestic dramedy are all experts at conveying both of these conflicting emotions. Although they normally reside—and work—on different continents, they come together in a single living-room set on stage and meshed together beautifully in a relatively happy familial whole. Their connecting link is the play’s director, Bartlett Sher.

“Bart’s first thought,” says White, “is to cast the best voices available for these roles. We started with Nathan and Danny right off the bat—then, luckily, we were able to add Zoe.”

Wanamaker, born in New York but raised in London, normally hangs out at the National Theater doing plays, but she has visited Broadway four times and won a Tony nomination every time. Sher directed her in 2006’s Tony-winning revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 drama, Awake and Sing, and he assured White she had “the right voice” for the role. Not only that, she bore a strong resemblance to Jean—Sultan’s real pictures are used—she walks, talks and acts like her. 

“Nathan read the play, loved it and signed up,” says White. “There’s something about the rhythm of the play that both Nathan and Danny love. We’ll get on stage just to adjust some technical cues—and, suddenly, they’re off and running again through a scene they don’t necessarily have to do. I think they love the interplay they have. It’s really exciting to have words come out of their mouths like it’s theirs.

“The casting is stunning. More than anything, it’s just surreal. I still have a bit of out-of-body about someone like them stepping into those roles. I just sorta can’t believe it. A big theatrical experience like this is so rare for a lot of writers. Every day I arrive at the theater or see audiences come in, I make sure I force myself to remember every moment, every second.”

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How Playwright Sharr White Built A Broadway Domestic Dramedy From Family Photos