In 2008, according to Money.com, one out of every 54 homes in America received a foreclosure notice. Setting down that statistic in black and white cloaks it some anesthetizing distance that shields readers from its harsh reality. Stephanie Alison Walker’s play “American Home,” receiving its world premiere at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre this weekend, closes that distance with its presentation of three stories concerning people losing their homes.
It’s a topic Walker is all too qualified to dig into. In 2008, the native Midwesterner and her husband unexpectedly found themselves on the underside of the economic crash when he lost his job shortly after they had finished renovating their dream home in Silver Lake. Struggling to stay afloat and casting about for others navigating similar circumstances, she launched a cathartic and popular blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, which chronicled their experience. (It was eventually published as an ebook.) Around that same time she also started writing “American Home.”
“We have a dog, a pug, and I was taking a lot of walks, and my husband and I would walk together at the end of the day and talk through all our stress and anxiety and try to make a plan of what we could do,” she recalls. “On one of those walks I had the idea, ‘I need to write this play now, while we’re going through this.’”
Walker has a track record of translating complex social issues into plays. “The Art of Disappearing,” about family dynamics and dementia, was a finalist for the 2016 Francesca Primus Prize (jointly presented to emerging women playwrights by the American Theatre Critics Association and the Francesa Ronnie Primus Foundation). Her short play “Angelina Jolie is Stalking Me” addressed stalkers and privacy. “The Madres,” about mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, was a finalist for the 2016 Saroyan/Paul Human Rights Playwriting Prize, and will be staged next year at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz and also at San Diego’s Moxie Theatre as part of a National New Play Network “rolling” world premiere.
Walker says it normally takes her 10 years to process things and use them in her work, but she found courage to write “American Home” in a comment made by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman: “Write the thing you’re most afraid of.”
“I realized it might help me to write my worst-case scenario of how things might play out,” Walker says, “because then I might not be so afraid.”
The worst came to pass. Even though Walker and her husband had quickly found new jobs, they were earning less than half of what he had earned alone at his previous job. They were in the midst of negotiating a sale of their house when they received a foreclosure notice. First they camped out with family in Chicago, then lived for two years on rural San Juan Island off the coast of Washington. Walker’s blog became an online community hub where people could ask questions and share stories. While it introduced her to the kindness of strangers, and gave her an opportunity to offer support to readers, it also exposed her to stunning criticism.
“It’s scary being public, this sort of thing comes with its own unique circumstances,” she says. “When I was blogging, I had people say, ‘I hope you die.’ You have to deal with other people’s judgments about your personal life. But keeping hidden and feeding the shame makes it so much worse because you feel so alone. It’s really dangerous putting yourself in that position.”
She modeled the LA couple depicted in “American Home” after herself and her husband. Other storylines were inspired by gut-wrenching news stories published at the height of the foreclosure crisis: an elderly Michigan woman who shot herself when her house was foreclosed upon, and a prosperity preacher and a parishioner at her Florida megachurch.
The hope that Walker intentionally stitched into the play’s frame was also drawn from life. She and her husband recommitted themselves to their marriage, reprioritized, and learned to live with less “stuff.” He landed a good job in LA, and they are currently renting a home in Mar Vista while she stays home tending their 3½-year-old and 7-year-old children. Though the plot of “American Home” arises from the foreclosure crisis, what it’s really about is resilience — and compassion. “Take care of each other,” she says, “because you don’t know what somebody’s going through.”
“I’m hoping that people will relate to it, whether or not they’ve been through anything like that specifically. And I’m hoping people who have specifically been through everything see it and feel known and feel hope and feel recognized, and given a voice. I also hope that it does serve as a reminder. It really feels like we’ve already forgotten about it. That worries me.”
She considers her family lucky, but uncertainty’s a nagging housemate. Housing security for renters is determined by landlords — and affordable options are dwindling for LA renters whose landlords decide to sell their property. “It is a real thing,” Walker observes. “I’m hoping [the play] serves as a really strong reminder that it absolutely could happen again if we’re not paying attention. … What scares me is how inflated [things are].”
Million-dollar price tags for two-bedroom houses get “normalized” the more people hear about them, she points out, and those prices have only risen since 2008. “I just don’t know how that can be sustained. … If the banks and mortgage brokers are allowed to do what they were doing before when they were making a lot of money, they’re going to do it. It’s just human nature. That’s why regulations are so important.”
“American Home” previews at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, and officially opens Aug. 26, with performances continuing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons through Sept. 24; $10/Aug. 25 preview, $34 opening night, $25 for subsequent performances ($20 for seniors, students, and military members). Venue info: (626) 441-5977. stephaniealisonwalker.com, fremontcentretheatre.com, americanhome.brownpapertickets.com