August 20, 2019

Playwright’s 2nd look at 1st draft brings ‘Atonement’

If it’s axiomatic that art often imitates life and that writers write what they know, then what does “Atonement” say about playwright Richard Martin Hirsch?

The 2006 play’s protagonist, Elijah Stone, is a Montreal-born secular Jew who has moved to New York City and become a famed novelist after his journalistic sniping at the Quebecois and Zionism provoked outrage among his readers in Canada.

In his search for artistic immortality, the edgy, narcissistic author has turned his back on his faith and a loving wife, yet now finds his grip on reality ever more tenuous as he gropes for a spiritual foothold in his life.

The play, which enjoyed its world premiere at Theatre 40 in a four-week run that began this week, deals with issues of faith, conscience, the creative process and the power of love to either heal or cause hurt.

A mystery-style approach to character study, the entire play unfolds within Elijah’s mind, shifting backward and forward in time as he thinks about and remembers his relationships with the three key women in his life — but how much is reality and how much invention is revealed only gradually. As the first time he has written “anything with such an intended nonlinear structure,” Hirsch said, “Atonement” is “definitely a stretch” for him.

Much of the character, Hirsch said, “is my impression of an uncle of mine,” a Canadian who was “a prolific TV and radio play writer in the ’50s and ’60s in Montreal. I just had his voice in my head,” Hirsch said, while morphing the original character, “more of a generic playwright,” into Elijah.

Most of the character’s egotism, cynicism and inability to handle fame comes from Hirsch’s uncle, he said, as well as from other individuals, many in show business, whom Hirsch has met throughout his career. Likewise, the happily married Hirsch created Elijah’s infidelity from a variety of sources.

Hirsch also drew upon his own identity as a Jewish writer to help inform the character — who changed his name from Steinberg to Stone — introducing more pronounced Jewish themes when giving his original draft a major overhaul.

Hirsch said that “although at least half, if not more,” of his roughly 30 plays “have strong Jewish characters” and include various aspects of religion, the religious focal points of “Atonement” are new for him.

“I was brought up Jewish, but I’m not religious in the least now, and I’m sort of the typical secular Jew,” Hirsch said. Current world events, “coupled with getting older, being in my 50s,” have forced him to re-examine his own spiritual values. “This character in the play is doing that, as well as I’m doing it now.”

Born and raised in West Los Angeles, Hirsch studied economics at UCLA as an undergraduate, minoring in literature — but writing came later, when he “felt the impulse” to write and enrolled in a short story workshop through a UCLA Extension course. The instructor gave Hirsch permission to write a one-act play. “After that,” he said, “I was hooked.”

Soon in the late 1970s, he was studying writing at a workshop at Los Angeles Actors Theater, penning new plays and having them read aloud and produced at small venues locally. He has since seen many of his plays performed or read at theaters throughout Los Angeles, as well as in New York, Boston and other major U.S. cities.

He shelved the original version of “Atonement” after a Los Angeles Actors Theater staged reading in the late ’70s, but in mid-2004 he reconnected, via cyberspace, with a fellow playwright who had attended the reading and had since moved to New York. The strong impression of that single reading upon this colleague 25 years later prompted Hirsch to give his first draft a second look.

Hirsch brought the script to Howard Teichman and Hindi Brooks’ Theatre 40 Professional Theatre Company’s Writers Workshop, of which he’s a member, to begin developing and reworking it into its present form.

Teichman, the production’s director, said what drew him to “Atonement” was “the whole notion of ‘How does one cope with loss?’ and ‘How does one deal with God and faith when one is a cultural Jew?'” as well as the mechanisms novelist Elijah Stone creates in his efforts “to try to find salvation and redemption.”

“Without a strong faith-based support,” Hirsch said, Elijah is “left in this void. The seeds of what he needs” exist in his mind, “but his grief has put him in such a distracted place that he doesn’t know which way is up.”

As for the play’s title, Hirsch said his protagonist “needs to atone for his self-possessive, narcissistic existence and acknowledge the existence of there being something greater than himself. To admit that, you have to admit that you’re less than that,” where Elijah “thought he was above that and just needed himself. The play is the journey to get him to that point.”

Elijah, he said, is “absolutely” fooling himself with his repeated claims that “guilt is a useless emotion.”

“He knows it’s there,” Hirsch said. “It’s in his mind, but he has created a structure for himself in his life in order to reach what he perceives to be success.” The character harbors guilt for certain aspects of his life best left unrevealed, “but he doesn’t get to that point until near the end” of the journey called “Atonement.”

“Atonement” runs March 5-29, Mondays-Wednesdays 8 p.m.; March 11 and 18, 2 p.m.; March 29, 8 p.m. at Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. $20 (weekdays), $22 (Sundays). For more information, call (310) 364-0535 or visit