Lee Blessing spent a year reading everything he could on serial killers such as Ted Bundy before he wrote Down the Road, a play that premiered in 1989.
"If you're not someone who reads that kind of stuff, and you become immersed in it, you become very paranoid very quickly," Blessing says, speaking by phone from New York. "It's very grim, but I just got fascinated by what kind of character that might be onstage."
Down the Road, now playing at the Loft, is about a serial killer in prison and two writers who are interviewing him for a book. One of the ideas driving the play is how the grisly exploits of serial killers have become grist for the media mill.
"In the 1950s, only one crime got the kind of play that would even qualify as a serial killing, the Charles Starkweather killing spree in Nebraska and the Dakotas," Blessing says.
"Now, the incidence of serial killing has grown so precipitously that it has its own niche in American mythology. Killers have become celebrities. Instead of looking at it as a social problem that needs to be solved, we've tended to sensationalize it."
The playwright hopes that Down the Road will prod theatergoers to ponder the social forces that produce serial killers.
"We want to believe they're psychotic aberrations, but I think a lot of it is cultural and has to do with the structure of our society," he says. "Serial killers tend to be white males between 20 and 50. I don't think as a group they're any more nuts than anyone else, so it's likely social changes are affecting them and creating in them a level of anxiety and an incitement to do something about that anxiety that other groups don't respond to in the same way.
"I think people who act out in this violent manner are the extreme fringe of response to increased social pressures that are placed on everybody. For example, there's all this pressure to succeed. I think there are people who crack under the expectations they put on themselves.
"A lot of serial killers tend to go after young women, who are sort of symbols of success. If you're a successful man, society expects you to go out and find a pleasant young woman to marry. Well, this is sort of a sick parody of that. Part of the way a serial killer can revenge society is to kill the people society tends to prize."
Blessing, 43, divides his time between his hometown of Minneapolis and New York, where the Signature Theater is devoting this season to his work. Fortinbras, a comedy, is currently playing, to be followed by Lake Street Extension and a third play next spring. The playwright's wife, Jeanne Blake, is directing the first two.
Blessing, author of a dozen published plays, is best known for A Walk in the Woods, which is about U.S. and Soviet arms negotiators. It had a four-month Broadway run and is a staple in regional theaters.
Woods was his first play to deal with "Page One sorts of stories," Blessing says. Others are Two Rooms, about American hostages in Beirut, and Down the Road.
"They're the kind of issues that plague us on the front pages and create a reflex emotional response that is not examined. Treated in a play, one is able to examine emotions about these issues more fully."