by Len Lear
William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest dramatist in any language in world history, wrote 37 plays in his 51 years of life. (Although the great Mel Brooks insisted in his record, “2000-Year- Old Man,” that Shakespeare actually wrote a little-known 38th play titled “Queen Alexandra and Murray,” obviously a comedy.)
In sheer numbers, however, a local man who has worked as a restaurant server for his entire adult life has outpaced Shakespeare, writing an astonishing 60 plays, 35 of which have been produced.
John O’Hara, 58, who was born and raised in Lansdale and has lived in Skippack for 15 years, was the resident playwright for Theatre Arts Center in Doylestown and wrote most of their plays for many years. He had six children’s plays published by Playscripts, and they have been produced all over the world!
“I get an email when any one is produced,” he said last week, “and I am thrilled to see names of countries like Thailand, Argentina, Ontario, London and Tokyo, among others, as well as every state in the union.
“Skippack Playcrafters has been very supportive of my writing. They produced several of my children’s plays, and two of my adult plays, ‘Renewal’ and ‘Pursued by a Bear,’ were produced on their main stage. Dutch Country Players in Green Lane produced my ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Five Candles,’ which was also produced on the stages of ACT II Playhouse in Ambler and Bristol Riverside Theatre.”
Those who are savvy about American literature will no doubt notice that this prolific contemporary playwright has the exact same name as the John O’Hara (1905-1970) from Pottsville, PA, who earned his early literary reputation for short stories and became a best-selling novelist before the age of 30. Have many people commented on this name similarity throughout O’Hara’s life? “Not really.”
In addition to writing so many plays, O’Hara, who went to Lansdale Catholic High School and got a BA in Theatre and Speech from Allentown College, has acted in countless plays all over the Greater Philadelphia area.
“My first paid acting job was a dinner theater with ‘Sound of Music’ in 1982, and the first one I wrote was a fantasy fairy tale about princes and princesses called ‘Love and the Beagle.’”
O’Hara appeared at ACT II Playhouse in Ambler in a revue of Harry Chapin’s music which was so successful that it was revived four years later. O’Hara earned a Barrymore Award nomination for his work in it.
What makes this article timely, however, is that O’Hara’s play, “12 Chairs,” which has had many readings in town, will be performed at 1022 Buttonwood St. in the city’s Spring Arts neighborhood from April 25 to May 12.
Often funny and sometimes sad but always engaging, “12 Chairs” moves us through the lives of Louise and her mother, Ann. As Louise empties Ann’s house after her funeral, we experience, chair by chair and scene by scene, the moments, by turn tender and turbulent, that are seared into memory.
“I needed to write when my mother died,” O’Hara explained last week. “I was amazed that all of the memories and stories from me and my family were so simple and ordinary. My mother was a normal woman. Ordinary. But as in ‘Our Town,’ the everyday and ordinary become incredibly important.
“I hope that people who come to see the play will see their own mother, and if they can, they will leave the theater and call her just to say hello … The relationship between a mother and daughter seems to be eternally joyful and frustrating in the cyclical nature of life and its journey.”
When O’Hara is not acting or writing plays (he is currently working on three more), he is waiting on tables in a restaurant, which he has been doing for 45 years. He is currently working at Castello’s in Blue Bell, where his rich, authoritative baritone voice has to be an asset.
O’Hara, who has never held a job outside of the theater or restaurant industry, previously worked at Tremont in Lansdale, Montgomery Inn in Montgomeryville, Jefferson House in East Norriton, William Penn Inn, Savory Grille in Worcester, Trinacria in Blue Bell and Prince of Wales in North Wales.
“The best thing about being a server,” he said, “is that every day is different and that the schedule is flexible. The worst thing is that every day is different.”
Who are O’Hara’s own favorite playwrights, past and present?
“I love Shakespeare, Bruce Graham and Eugene O’Neill. Shakespeare still surprises me with the depth of the characters and the richness of the language.”
What is the hardest thing O’Hara has ever done?
“Saying goodbye to my mother in 2011 and to my sister in 2018.”
What was the best advice O’Hara has ever received?
“I was told that critical comments [by newspaper reviewers] are often about the critic. Not about you.”
If he could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be?
“Stephen Sondheim, Meryl Streep and William Shakespeare.”
Tickets for “12 Chairs” are available through www.juniper.agency. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org