Catherine Zudak’s latest script, Mortal Fools, is a fictionalized drama based on her CIA experiences and interrogation stories recounted to her apart from that internship.
It’s been more than 30 years since Catherine Zudak interned at the Central Intelligence Agency, where she was recognized for her writing abilities and not the engineering skills she was starting to pursue with a career in mind.
After that internship, she gave more time to writing within the context of theater, which had been a longtime interest, and she went on to have her scripts accepted by companies out of New York, Virginia and mostly Michigan.
Her latest script, Mortal Fools, is a fictionalized drama based on her CIA experiences and interrogation stories recounted to her apart from that internship. The play will be presented Wednesday, March 31, as a Zoom production for Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor. It is the third original production in Nova’s Play of the Month series, which runs through April.
Zudak introduces the audience to an intelligence officer in Afghanistan who must decide whether an Army major is guilty or innocent of treason because of the major’s relationship with a war correspondent. In making that decision, he calls on the advice of his ex-wife as the two of them lived out a situation similar to the one being questioned.
“The characters change in the arc of the story in a world that most people are not familiar with because it takes place in Afghanistan,” said Zudak, who wrote theater grant proposals before plays. “With an American housewife as a main character, the story becomes, in some ways, a war of worlds.”
Directed by David Wolber, Theatre Nova’s producing artistic director, the play features Bryan Lark (Major), Shelby Seely (Corporal), Alysia Kolascz (Melissa) and Patrick Loos (Michael).
“I started working on this script when Theatre Nova put out a call for 20- or 40-minute plays to put on Zoom,” said Zudak, who has organized Zoom productions for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.
“I’ve had some plays read by Nova in their new plays Zoom festival, so I had an idea of what they might like. I’ve always been really fascinated by intelligence work. As an intern at the CIA, I met people who liked to live in a world where it’s cloak and dagger, secrets and hidden motivations.”
Zudak has been involved in theater since she was 13 years old through school and amateur companies. Her evolution toward a playwright started when she lived in Washington, D.C., and worked on new play festivals for the now disbanded Source Theatre Company.
“It was so intriguing to watch something fresh and new,” she said. “I started a new play festival at Civic before I started writing my first play. I did a lot of social science research and had to write up reports, but I didn’t get back to theater until I had started my family and was not working.”
Zudak, 54, who grew up in Ohio, majored in history at Texas A&M University and earned her master’s degree in public policy research and analysis at George Washington University.
The playwright moved to Michigan in 1998, when her husband, Robert Silbergleit, joined the University of Michigan Medical Center as an emergency room physician and clinical researcher. With marriage, she began practicing Judaism, and the family, which includes two children, became active with Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor.
“I write frequently about the everyman caught up in power struggles where he doesn’t have a lot of control,” Zudak said. “In this case, the main character had an affair and is severely penalized for it by being suspected of a lot of really bad things by bad actors in the intelligence community.
“I’m interested in what happens to these people. Are they crushed? Do they triumph? Or somewhere in between?”
Zudak’s plays have been performed at the Detroit Fringe Festival, Actors’ Theater Grand Rapids and Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills.
The playwright, who has participated in local playwriting workshops and has experience producing Zoom presentations, relates that background to the way she established the format for the upcoming play.
“A lot of Zoom shows are Zoom meetings between two people or weren’t written for Zoom,” she said. “We’re taping this one, so it looks like there are three people in the room together.”