Play based on local couple graces Asolo stage

Bradenton Herald – Love isn’t just for the young. Cupid’s arrow can strike just as fierce at any age.

Even 70.

Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer discovered this fact a few years ago, when she met her muse for “Managing Maxine” — a play about a woman in her 70s who falls for a handsome judge. Find out how their passion ignites each other and everyone else when the Asolo Repertory Theatre presents their love story beginning Friday.

The play is based on Ann Z. Leventhal and Jon Newman, a judge. The Connecticut couple live part-time in University Park in East Manatee.

Shaffer, 46, met the couple in New York during their courting period a few years ago. The playwright was working on her latest play “Bluish” for the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. Artistic director Susan Booth suggested she go to dinner with her mother-in-law, who would be bringing her handsome, distinguish-looking new boyfriend.

Shaffer was hesitant at first, but accepted the offer. Little did she know what was in store.

“So I went to dinner and met this couple,” Shaffer said. “They were 70 years old. I’ve always had this vision of what love later in life would look like, and it was nothing like what I saw at that table.”

Romantic sparks were flying left and right between the couple.

“This was hot,” Shaffer said. “It was a little shocking to me. They weren’t inappropriate in any way but you could just tell that they had a real youthful energy with each other. They were curious. They were exciting. They were so brilliant and beautiful.”

And that’s when “Managing Maxine” was born.

Unlike olden times when the girl waits on the guy to make the first move, Leventhal took matters into her own hands when she discovered Newman was available — she asked him out first. The rest, as people say, is history.

When they dated, Leventhal was in her late 60s. Newman was in his early 70s. Together, they debunked all of Shaffer’s notions about love at a certain age. Before she met them, Shaffer believed love for the older generation was more of a companionship relationship.

Not hot and bothered.

“Very often when older people are portrayed in film or in theater, they are portrayed as old people. They are portrayed as grandmas in rocking chairs, and that’s not the women that I know,” Shaffer said. “That’s not my mother’s generation. They are vibrant, and they travel. They are really, really engaged. . . . (“Managing Maxine”) is about a fully realized woman. She is sexy. She’s smart. She’s not a caricature.”

Shaffer didn’t breathe a word about developing a play based on the couple. She wrote and wrote, placing her character, Maxine, in different scenarios. She wondered how her character, already filled with much life experience, would react to getting involved in a new romantic relationship later in life. To be vulnerable at age 70 — emotionally and physically.

Though Shaffer only met with her muses once — during that New York dinner — she used the energy and curiosity they exhibited on their date to help shape the characters in her story. The play also deals with the reaction of the couple’s grown children.

During the writing process of “Managing Maxine,” Shaffer, who has written eight plays, found out the couple got married. She said she read about them in the wedding section of the New York Times while on the elliptical trainer at the gym.

“I almost fell off the trainer,” she said. “She looked beautiful. She had on a hat in her wedding picture.”

The play was staged in October 2008. It won the 2009 Gene Gabriel Moore Playwright Award and the 2008 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award.

Leventhal, who kept her original married name, and Newman attended the Atlanta premiere and enjoyed it.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Leventhal said. “It certainly covers the facts.”

For the Asolo performance, actress Sharon Spelman will portray Maxine. Granville Van Dusen will play her love interest, Arthur.

Leventhal and Newman, who are still young at heart, continue to get along well. They spend hours together talking and laughing. Like a first date that never ends.

“I said to him, ‘When we’re together, why do we laugh so much?,’ Leventhal said. “He said, ‘It’s our joy bubbling up.’ ”

Like the couple’s real-life story, their fictional stage story will touch hearts on any level, at any age, Shaffer said.

“Usually what happens is that people go out of the theater holding hands,” Shaffer said. “And if you don’t have somebody’s hand to hold maybe you’ll look around the theater. Or celebrate the love you have for your children or your writing or whatever feeds you in your life. It’s just about finding whatever makes you dance, you know.”

– published March 11, 2010

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