One apartment. Two different eras. Each creating unlikely friendships. In 2015, reluctant coworkers Hal and Cassie are investigating a sad hoarder mess, sifting through the belongings of an elderly and mysterious “Jane Doe.” In 1955, two strangers from different worlds, Esther and Lynley, spark an uneasy friendship, exploring their blossoming connection against all odds. Developed through the Ashland New Play Festival and the Headwaters New Play Festival, Hazardous Materials digs deep into truths long buried under decades of emotional detritus. How much do we bury in a place, and within ourselves?
2015. The expectant apartment is waiting, exhausted and growing nervous. She’s also a mess. Enter rookie county investigator Hal, a man on the cusp of 40, and Cassie, a more experienced investigator with little patience for her chatty new coworker. They begin sifting through the detritus, trying to determine the identity of the “Jane Doe” who recently died here. Hal has lots of questions and hopes for some sort of adventure in this new gig; world-weary Cassie assures him that the stories in places like this are usually sad ones not worth dwelling on. They should just focus on the task at hand and find the things that define a life— tax paperwork, dental records, the basics. But she agrees to let him put some music on the old turntable, and Ella Fitzgerald begins to sing…
1955. Ella Fitzgerald is still singing as the apartment transitions; in the new scene, it’s the same space but completely reimagined, clear of clutter, vibrant and sparse and hopeful. Esther Rosenberg, a Jewish immigrant in her 30s, is dancing around, cleaning the apartment, when she’s startled by an unexpected knock at the door. In walks Lynley Rosenberg, one of the many neighbors she has never met— the first one bold enough to come ask Esther why she’s the only white person ever to move in to this building. Lynley brings a cake, and cheer, and something even sweeter… human connection. Turns out they’re both war widows whose husbands died in WWII some ten years earlier. They decide to get together again.
2015. Back in the contemporary clutter of the abandoned apartment, Hal and Cassie continue sifting through items, unearthing clues that Hal deems significant and Cassie sees as worthless. They do find a safe, but no key, and some postcards to and from “ER,” which is the closest they have to a name for Jane Doe. Then Hal confesses that he’s going through a divorce and isn’t usually as needy as he is today. Cassie is somewhat sympathetic. Hal finds a teapot with something in it he keeps hidden from Cassie. Then Hal finds a small treasure trove of alcohol and asks Cassie to drink with him. She refuses on “we’re working!” grounds. But when Hal steps out to take a call, she uncaps one of the bottles, breathes it in… then with effort, steps away from it right before he returns. Cassie has baggage, too.
1955. Lynley comes over to Esther’s apartment for a second visit, and the “war widows” share their stories. Lynley fled a bitter life in Alabama with her husband Charlie, only to lose him in the Port Chicago disaster; Esther is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, whose family was still in Europe during the war, and died in the camps— and whose husband was an American soldier whose plane went down at the very end of the war. After sharing sad stories, each feels lighter, glad to finally have someone who understands.
2015. Cassie takes a quick call from her AA sponsor, confirming for the audience her recovery. Hal returns from the hallway where he had another frustrating call with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who is pressuring him to come up with more money for their son’s birthday party. The two finally begin to connect and commiserate; Cassie shares that today is her one-year sobriety anniversary. And in another initially positive turn, they finally find a promising piece of evidence: a recurring FedEx delivery slip that means something was recently sent to Jane Doe. But Cassie, horrified, remembers an important detail from the assignment report… and tells Hal to put on his face mask.
1955. Lynley brings a pie over to Esther’s place and finds Esther cleaning like mad for Passover. Esther, growing accustomed to Esther’s presence and baked goods, is delighted to see her but sad to inform her that she can’t eat pie during Passover. But there’s a few hours until sunset, so the war widows decide to eat a few last bites of chamez (leavened foods) before the holiday begins. Esther explains Passover to Lynley, who has always loved the Exodus story, Moses, reflecting on freedom… she shares a story from her Alabama childhood, and how little freedom she had in the Jim Crow South. Esther is moved by her story, encouraging her to share more— but Lynley is done with sad stories for now. She wants joy, she wants to dance! She cranks up the music and invites Esther to “Passover dance” with her. Esther laughs, they dance, the music swells— and then Esther kisses Lynley.
1955. We return to the exact moment of the kiss. Lynley is shocked, mortified, doesn’t know how to react; Esther is apologetic, desperate not to lose her friend over this unplanned display of affection. She begs Lynley to forgive her, and forget this incident, and still be her friend. Lynley, unsure, says she’ll need some time to think. She leaves, and Esther is devastated.
2015. Hal and Cassie come gasping back into the apartment’s living room, from the kitchen— where they found hundreds of rotting fruit baskets, sent to Jane Doe and never opened. These hazardous materials make the apartment a much more dangerous place, and the investigators are eager to get out of there— but they can’t. Not yet.
1955. A month later, Lynley finally comes over for another visit. The conversation at Esther’s is stilted, awkward, different from any other time the two have met. Finally naming their discomfort, they try to move past it. Lynley says she cannot think about being “something more,” but she does still want to be friends. Esther hides her disappointment and emphasizes her relief that Lynley will still be in her life. Then a telegram arrives— Esther’s mother-in-law has passed away, and she must leave for shiva. Lynley offers to make a dish for the house of mourning, since Esther can’t cook. She asks if she can make the dish in Esther’s kitchen… because her gas has been cut off. Turns out Lynley’s widow’s benefits have stopped coming in from the Department of Defense, and she’s about to be evicted. Esther tells Lynley to move in with her, to avoid winding up on the streets. But Lynley worries about what that might mean, and hastily exits.
2015. Hal and Cassie prepare to leave for lunch, relieved to get out of the apartment for an hour. Hal offers to treat, in honor of Cassie’s one-year sobriety anniversary. She decides to take him up on the offer. He lets her step out first and hurries back to the teapot he found earlier. He takes out its contents, revealing a wad of cash he knows he shouldn’t take. He looks at it, counts out the money in his wallet, decides he can cover the lunch for Cassie and himself without taking the money… and places it back in the teapot.
1955. Summer. Lynley is moving in to Esther’s apartment, because it’s her best option— and they’re friends again, lighthearted as they move all the new things into Esther’s once-sparse abode. Lynley tells Esther that her church friends don’t approve of her moving in with “the white lady.” Esther tells her to try to stop worrying so much what others think. She shares a gift for Lynley— a poem from Emily Dickinson. Hope is the thing with feathers. Lynley shares a poem she wrote, about being a lonely water-wife. They toast to more poetry, and more hope.
2015. Returning from lunch, the stench and depression of the apartment overwhelm Hal and Cassie, and although they had a nice lunch together, their dynamic quickly deteriorates. Hal takes another aggravating call from his ex, asking for money, and calls her a bitch; overhearing him, Cassie calls him out for his bad behavior. She winds up telling him she knows a thing or two about rock bottom, and shares the worst thing she ever did— stealing her mother’s medication money and spending it on booze, condemning her mother to die alone in a house not unlike this apartment. Raw and ready to be done, the investigators return to work, sorting through the apartment, hoping to find their ticket out as soon as possible.
Optional interstitials showing sorting of items/Lynley and Esther dancing, drawing closer…
1955. December. After half a year of living together, Esther and Lynley are somewhat more than friends, although they do not discuss their arrangement. Lynley is still at work as Esther decorates the apartment for both Chanukah and Christmas, then remembers the latkes she left burning in the kitchen. As she returns with the singed potato pancakes, Lynley enters; she was just attacked by neighbors who blackened her eye and told her it wasn’t right— presumably, her life with Esther. She says she’s going to leave. Esther says they should both leave, flee to someplace where they will be accepted. Lynley doesn’t believe that place exists, and doesn’t believe they deserve it, anyhow. She doesn’t want to be “a woman like this.” Esther shares the story of her first relationship with a woman— a girl her father caught her with, beat her for loving; Esther fled Europe not to get away from Hitler, but from her father’s wrath. Her identity is why she ultimately survived when her family did not, and she is done hiding. She tells Lynley to stay as the apartment, cash Esther’s benefits checks, and live on paper as “Esther Rosenberg.” Esther is done with this life. But she leaves a wad of cash in the rose teapot they shared so many times, telling Lynley to empty the teapot and spend the money when she’s ready to be with her. Lynley begs Esther to at least light the Chanukah lights with her. They light the lights, Esther sings the blessing of dedication… and then she leaves.
2015. As the day draws to a close, and the weary investigators assume they’ll never know the identity of the Jane Doe, the apartment’s lights flicker off and on again— and Hal spots a key. A key to the old safe they found earlier. He opens the safe, and voila: all the paperwork proving that the name of the tenant was Esther Rosenberg. It strikes Cassie as odd, since she knows of few African American Rosenbergs… but life is full of surprises. Hal’s ex calls again, reminding them life is also full of the same-old, same-old. They wrap up their work, make some awkward apologies, and start to leave. Hal asks if he can have a moment alone in the apartment, to pay his respects. When he’s alone, he returns to the teapot. Takes the money. And leaves.
An emotional conclusion filled with sacrifice, loss, and poetry.
Hal – Almost 40, M (2015). New to the job, new to being divorced, feeling very wronged and thereby losing his grasp on right and wrong. Not a bad guy, but not in a good place.
Cassie – 30s, F/NB (2015). Working class Chicagoan, recovering alcoholic, former military, gruff exterior but kind-hearted with high moral standards.
Esther – 30s, F (1955). Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia, mild Czech accent, reserved but passionate. Her husband was an American soldier who died fighting in World War II; the rest of her family died in concentration camps.
Lynley – 30s, F (1955). African American woman from Alabama, friendly, formidable. Her husband was an American soldier who died in the Port Chicago munitions disaster.
Setting: 2015/1955. A small Southside Chicago apartment. Bronzeville. An old building, precursor to the Chicago Housing Authority's public housing works such as Cabrini (later Cabrini-Green), Ida B. Wells, and the high rises. She should almost be listed as a character herself.
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Billing responsibilities, pertinent copyright information, and playwrights' biographies are available in the show rider that comes with your license agreement.
An Authorized Materials/Rehearsal Package must be purchased from Stage Rights as a part of your licensing agreement. Your materials will be sent to you two months prior to your opening date, unless other arrangements have been made in advance with your Stage Rights Licensing Representative.
The Authorized Materials/Rehearsal Package for HAZARDOUS MATERIALS consists of:
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