The two dates of national trauma for post-war America are both defined by shocking filmed images of violent death: the Kennedy assassination on 22 November 1963, and the World Trade Centre attacks on 11 September 2001. Keith Reddin had recently completed Frame 312, his play about the first event, when the second devastated the skyline a few blocks from his New York home.
The play, which has its world premiere tomorrow as part of the Donmar Warehouse's American Imports season, takes its title from the split second of the Zapruder film that shows JFK's head being blown open, and Reddin's fictionalised heroine is one of the first people to see that gruesome amateur footage. "About 18 months ago, I met a woman at a party, who said she'd been a secretary at Life magazine in 1963," Reddin explains. "When the magazine bought the film from Zapruder, she'd had to see it over and over again. What really blew my mind was that she then had to take the film to J Edgar Hoover in Washington, on her own, just carrying it in her handbag.
"It was a fascinating story, which pretty much checked out when I contacted Life magazine, but the reason I wanted to write the play was that the woman also said that she had never told anyone about this experience in almost 40 years – not her family, her friends. I wanted to find out why."
This woman has become the two Lorettas of Frame 312: the young Life secretary in the 1960s and the widowed grandmother in the 1990s, who finally reveals her Zapruder secret to her son, an insurance adjuster, and her daughter, a depressed social worker, at a tense birthday barbecue. Reddin's exploration of the Zapruder film's power to haunt someone for decades is sure to chime with audiences who just six months ago watched the amateur footage of the hijacked planes smashing into the twin towers, from several angles, in slow motion, over and over again. "You have to remember that in 1963, we didn't see people dying on the TV news, and Zapruder is a snuff film," says Reddin, who was a young boy when JFK was shot. "Loretta had to watch it many times, just days after the event. Also, we didn't have the same media coverage back then. Imagine if there was just one tourist video as the only record of the planes going in on September 11. It would be like the Zapruder film is for JFK."
The extent to which the 22-second tracking shot of Kennedy's Dallas motorcade has lodged in the memories of a generation, replayable at will, explains why Reddin chose not to use Zapruder footage or stills in Frame 312. "I originally intended to have it projected, with the audience watching the characters watching the film, but theatrically it works better if there's a film projector but no screen – and we project our emotions on to the characters, and see the film in our mind's eye."
Not showing the film, he adds, also helps to steer the play further away from the conspiracy-theory territory occupied by Oliver Stone's sprawling JFK (Reddin includes a joke at its expense in Frame 312) or James Ellroy's brutal American Tabloid (which Reddin loves). "This is absolutely not a play about the Kennedy assassination conspiracies. I don't do investigative journalism, and, God knows, there's enough of that out there already. I did a little bit of research and found just a gazillion theories and books about the assassination. It's a vortex of insanity once you start looking at it. For example, there's a website that allows you to analyse the Zapruder film frame by frame. My interest is this woman, haunted and obsessed by the film, who can't really tell her story because she feels her life is just not important."
His focus on the "emotional truth" of one woman's experience makes Frame 312 echo Love Field (1992), the low-key film drama with an Oscar-nominated performance from Michelle Pfeiffer as a Jackie Kennedy-obsessed housewife on a pilgrimage to JFK's funeral. Reddin volunteers Arthur Miller as another point of comparison. "Frame 312 is in the vein of All My Sons: it's set in a backyard, there's a family, and a secret that affects how someone has lived for years, but has never been talked about, with grown-up kids asking a parent,"How could you not have told us about this?". I'm not comparing myself to Miller, but I am using the classic Miller thing – and it goes back to Ibsen before Miller – of how our secrets can poison the generations."
Reddin is also using Frame 312's ordinary family to illustrate the souring of the American dream, and "the way regular people get accidentally caught up in history" – both recurrent themes in several of the dramas he has written since completing a postgraduate play-writing course at Yale in the 1980s. The hero of Life and Limb, produced in New York in 1985, was a soldier returning home after losing an arm in the Korean War; the following year's Rum and Coke featured a bureaucrat involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Recently, as his parallel acting career has all but given way to full-time writing, he has targeted more contemporary events. Brutality of Fact (seen at the New End, in Hampstead) was a dark comedy written soon after the Waco siege, when Reddin wanted "to examine why a woman would chuck away her life, her kid and her husband and find solace in a cult". Synergy, premiered in Houston earlier this year, is a freewheeling Faustian satire on corporate Hollywood, in which Disney boss Michael Eisner turns out to be Satan incarnate. "Disney did threaten legal action," says Reddin, "but the play is so over-the-top that we were OK. I'm fascinated by America's corporate mentality, and by the curtailment of personal freedoms that entails. But my background as an actor means that I always want to write characters that actors will look at and feel, "I'd like to play this. This is written by someone who knows what works on stage'."
While his work has been well received off-Broadway, and at venues in Chicago, Atlanta and Berkeley, its political edge will never make Reddin the toast of Broadway. "One of the reasons why I decided to offer Frame 312 to the Donmar was a feeling that there's more acceptance here of drama with political content," he says. "There's not a lot of theatre with any political subject matter seen in the US. It's a generalisation, but most of our drama is just domestic. In a lot of the plays I see, the kid comes home, says, "I'm gay'; the mother says, "I have cancer', and they all hug. American drama is all about closure and reconciliation. We're famous for that, our talk shows are based on that. I'm interested in stories that are more ambiguous."
'Frame 312' opens tomorrow, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020-7369 1732)Reuse content