A month before actress/playwright Sandy Rustin began writing her play STRUCK, she was struck with inspiration — literally. STRUCK will have its world premiere June 30-July 31 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Like Vera Resnick, the lead character in her play, Rustin was hit by a bicycle while walking in Manhattan. The incident left her injured and unnerved, especially since it was the third time she had been struck in recent months, once by a garbage truck that slammed into her rental car, and the other by a negligent driver whose car hit hers.
“I was just doing my own thing when outside force intervened. I felt like the universe wanted me to wake up and pay attention to something,” Rustin told NJJN. “Are there greater forces in this universe or just random cells bumping into each other? This play is an exploration of that question.”
Around the same time as her accidents, a hot topic in the media was the restitution movement to return artifacts stolen from Jews by the Nazis in World War II. “Both of those things were floating around in my universe, and somehow the two themes came together when I sat down to write,” said Rustin, who lives in Maplewood, where she and her husband, Evan Fleischer, a TV and web-content producer, are raising their two young “mensches.” The family is affiliated with Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
STRUCK is a serious comedy that deals with the search for truth in the face of deception, and the lingering echoes of the darkest moments in history, linking strangers to a Holocaust survivor. “This play definitely has Jewish themes that will resonate with a Jewish audience, but it also has broad appeal for audiences of all backgrounds,” the playwright said.
Months after completing the play, Rustin had a chance meeting with a lost relative, similar to the story line in STRUCK. “I was walking down the street when I met a man in his 80s who lives in my neighborhood. It turned out that his grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters. He and my mother put together a family tree, we shared some Shabbat dinners, and now I have this really wonderful distant cousin I never knew I had,” she said.
Rustin grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Glenview, Ill., and spent at least 11 summers at a Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wis. She moved to New York City after earning a theater degree from Northwestern University and, within a week, landed the role of Sandy in a national tour of Grease. In the 15 years since, she has enjoyed a successful stage career. The descendant of German immigrant great-grandparents, Rustin changed her family name from Kraut to her mother’s maiden name after a theater professor suggested that Sandy Kraut might not have marquee appeal.
After her first son was born, Rustin began to focus more on writing than acting. The first show she cowrote, the “sketch comedy musical” Rated P for Parenthood, was produced by Westside Theater in New York, where she had performed for three years in the musical comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Rated P for Parenthood is in development for TV with ABC Studios.
Her next play, The Cottage, a British bedroom farce set in 1923, has been playing regionally for a couple of years and was recently optioned to be produced in New York. Rustin is also working on a new play, Houston, about a Jewish girl who falls in love with a Jordanian boy she meets in the bone marrow transplant unit of a hospital in the Texas city.
Last April, Rustin appeared as a guest star on the sketch comedy television series Inside Amy Schumer. She is artistic adviser of Midtown Direct Rep, a professional theater company in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. It includes more than 100 working Broadway actors from South Orange and Maplewood, an area described by The New York Times as “where Broadway comes home to sleep.”
Rustin says she is delighted to present STRUCK at New Jersey Rep in Long Branch. “I have done a couple of readings there as an actress,” she said. “I think it is an extraordinary theater. Its founders, Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, devote their entire mission to developing new plays and new playwrights, which is a very brave thing to do in today’s theatrical climate.”