Most mid-life crises hit people when they're 40, but for Brooklyn-based gay playwright Jordan Harrison it was turning age 35 two years ago that sent him into spirals of self-examination over his life and chosen career. It also inspired the creation of his play The Grown-Up, which has its second-ever production this month courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit following its 2014 debut at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
"For some reason that was the age when I realized that I was going to die," said Harrison, reflecting back on what 35 meant to him during a recent telephone interview. "I had a mortgage, I was getting married in three monthsI was more grown up than I ever expected."
Harrison was also taking part in an artistic "silent retreat" in 2013 where he and several other playwrights were forced to write without communicating with one another or without any access to research books or the Internet. Naturally, Harrison said those conditions forced him to turn inward to create a more personal piece that "cannibalized my own experience more than I normally do."
The Grown-Up centers on a 10-year-old boy named Kai who is given a magical doorknob by his grandfather that allows him to time-travel. But instead of allowing Kai to visit eras like the Jurassic period or revolutionary France, the doorknob takes him to unexpected future events in his own life ranging from a disastrous Hollywood pitch meeting in his 20s to a gay-wedding reception in his 30s featuring a streaking caterer.
Director Krissy Vanderwarker saw The Grown-Up at the Humana Festival and was immediately taken with it. She approached Shattered Globe Theatre artistic director Sandy Shinner about producing the play, and they fast-tracked The Grown-Up to its 2014-15 season.
"We thought it was a great fit for their ensemble," Vanderwarker said. "I love Jordan's work and it speaks to me particularly because it demands to be done in the theaterit's magical realism, so it often has opportunities for imagery and engagement beyond they typical fare of Chicago realism."
Although same-sex marriage figures into the plot of The Grown-Up, the play doesn't dwell on it like many an "issue play"a factor that Vanderwarker really liked. As for Harrison, he put the gay wedding reception in as a way to predict what might happen at his own nuptials.
"It was somewhat an accurate prediction of my own wedding with far less dysfunction than the one in the play," Harrison said with a laugh. "That feeling to trying to sort of take a mental photograph of what's going on in this vortex of activity and trying to experience the moment. Everyone tells you that your wedding day goes by in the blink of a moment and it certainly does do that."
Coming of age as a teenager in eastern Washington state in the 1990s, Harrison said he had no foresight that he would be able to happily come out and marry in the future. In fact, he says it would have startled his 10-year-old self if he knew what was in store for his own life as a playwright, which is in part why Harrison penned The Grown-Up.
Locally, Harrison has had his previous plays like Kid-Simple at American Theater Company and Maple and Vine at the now-departed Next Theatre in Evanston. Writers Theatre in Glencoe will also produce his forthcoming play Marjorie Prime later this year.
But nowadays, Harrison acknowledges that his biggest audience experiencing his work comes from his association as a writer for the Netflix women's prison series Orange Is the New Black, which he joined for its third season. It's a job he loves, especially since he was such a big fan before he was hired.
"All I've ever known is this funny world where everything is released all at once," Harrison said, adding that his fellow writers often checked online chatrooms to see how audiences reacted to season two of Orange is the New Black while they were writing the third series. "That pleasure of seeing people consume what you worked on in 13-and-a-half-hoursI got to see the other writers experience that in the writers' room."
"It's a new thing for me to be juggling a theater writer's life and a TV writer's life right now," Harrison said, adding that he's also in talks about adapting his play Maple and Vine for television, too. "But I will always be a theater writer, first and foremost."
Shattered Globe Theatre's Chicago premiere of Jordan Harrison's The Grown-Up plays April 9-May 23 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Call 773-975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org or www. shatteredglobe.org .