In the late 1990s, A.R. Gurney tried his hand at writing a novel. The prolific playwright had pulled it off before. But this time around, he hit a wall.
The novel-in-progress contained two separate threads that seemed to work on their own but never quite came together, hard as Gurney tried to unite them. So, the Buffalo-bred dramatist, whose work often deals with the soft-focus travails of Buffalo's vanished aristocracy, returned to where he has always been most comfortable.
"I just decided, hell, I'd rather do it on the stage," Gurney said by phone from his home in Connecticut. One thread of the novel became "Indian Blood," an enchanting and slightly ominous Gurney picture-postcard that played during Studio Arena Theatre's final season in 2007. The other became "Ancestral Voices," the Buffalo premiere of which opens tonight on the stage of the Road Less Traveled Theatre.
As part of the company's American Theater Master's series, Gurney will speak to local playwrights and help raise money for the theater May 5 at its annual gala in the Saturn Club (Gurney country if ever it existed) for those willing to shell out $125 for a ticket.
In the meantime, theatergoers can check out the second part of Gurney's abandoned novel, conceived as a kind of quasi-reading that allows for a big cast and a range of settings without breaking the bank.
The decision not to use the traditional approach of a full production, Gurney said, was a practical one.
"I didn't see any way I could possibly have the Adirondack scenes or the large crowd scenes or the wedding and all the rest of it in an actual play, so I automatically seemed to turn it into a reading," he said.
"By doing in that kind of quasi-narrative form, it enabled me to tell a story which took place with a lot of people in it and in a number of places."
Both "Indian Blood" and "Ancestral Voices," Gurney said, are "about grandparents and about a kid relating to his grandparents. That's not all it's about, but that's certainly part of it. I had two very different grandmothers, and I loved them both and I wanted to talk about how they influenced me and were examples for a particular kind of life."
The title of the play comes from Coleridge's famous poem "Kubla Khan," in which the great Mongolian rule hears "ancestral voices prophesying war."
In this play, the ancestral voices are those of Gurney's grandparents, whose decision to split up sends ripples through many generations, the war being prophesied World War II.
The Road Less Traveled production, directed by Scott Behrend, caps off its three-year retrospective of Gurney's plays which also featured "Screen Play" and "A Light Lunch."
"Those plays were both very topical and very political, whereas 'Voices' is domestic and sort of universal," said Behrend in a statement.
"It's also very critical of the ways in which nostalgia may deceive and distort, and there's a powerful vein of melancholy and loss that runs through it."
WHAT: "Ancestral Voices"
WHEN: Tonight through May 13
WHERE: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.
TICKETS: $15 to $30
INFO: 629-3069 or www.roadlesstraveled-productions.org