Putting state’s woes front, center

Sean O’Leary spent decades working in marketing in New York and Boston before returning to his home state where he’s found success as a playwright and newspaper columnist.

[cleeng_content id="998412889" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]Now the 57-year-old has published a paperback collection of his insights into the state’s myriad challenges. The book – entitled “The State of My State: A Native Son’s Search for West Virginia” – goes on sale on Amazon.com and other outlets in June. It also will be available as an e-book.

In the book, the Wheeling native – who holds a degree in philosophy from Bethany College – writes thoughtfully about West Virginia’s intersection with politics, culture and history.

Among the 43 essays included in the book: a reflection on the legacy of U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, the long-serving Democrat who died in 2010.

West Virginia native Sean O’Leary, an expert in philosophy and marketing – and an award-winning playwright – has published a collection of essays that takes aim at the challenges facing his home state.

West Virginia native Sean O’Leary, an expert in philosophy and marketing – and an award-winning playwright – has published a collection of essays that takes aim at the challenges facing his home state.

He examines various woes that continue to bedevil the West Virginia he loves, from its unusual tax structure, approach to technology, the prevalence of prescription drug abuse and other issues of the day.

In his latest column, one published in the Spirit earlier this month, O’Leary recounted the long, sad, complex saga of coal company exec Don Blankenship and his supporters on the West Virginia Supreme Court and asked why more West Virginians weren’t outraged.

Another passion of O’Leary’s – writing plays – allows him to examine important, timeless questions.

One of his latest, “Walt Whitman’s Secret,” was staged last year at the Full Circle Theater Co. in Shepherdstown.

O’Leary was asked to create a play based on the novel of the same name, a book written by Canadian novelist George Fetherling that rose to No. 6 on Canada’s best-seller list.

Best known for his 1855 poetry collection “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman returned to the topic of love throughout his long writing career and biographers continue to speculate about his sexuality, wondering if he might have been gay or bisexual.

O’Leary’s play ponders whether Whitman ever experienced a fully realized romance – a connection with either a man or woman with whom he could be entirely intimate, emotionally, physically and intellectually.

In 2011, Full Circle also staged O’Leary’s “Claudie Hukill,” a play set in southern West Virginia in the early 1970s that starred Pat Markland, Homer Speaker, Rhonda Kisner, Juanita Salazar, Sandra DeRocha and Ashton Lear.

It explores the relationship between two brothers, one of them a successful Boston journalist and the other a onetime high school football starter who’s stayed in their hometown of Logan where he is both a hero and a puzzle.

Full Circle also staged O’Leary’s “Pound,” which imagines the emotional life of poet Ezra Pound, who spent years in a Washington psychiatric hospital after entering an insanity plea on charges of committing treason during World War II.

“Pound” is O’Leary’s most-produced work so far. It won the Pittsburgh New Play Festival in 2004 and has been staged in D.C., Memphis, Tenn., and nearly a dozen other communities.

Another of his plays is “Valu-Mart,” set in Jefferson County. It’s been staged in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, but hasn’t been performed locally.

In the work, O’Leary considers the collision of idealism versus pragmatism. All the action unfolds inside a mass merchandise store after the key to a jewelry case goes missing.

The main characters – including a young black man on probation for theft, an older black man still in the grip of the principles he learned during the Civil Rights movement, a struggling, 20-year-old single mom and a genteel, older white woman – spend almost the entire play locked by store management inside a small employee break room.

The play unfolds in real time, without breaks or scene changes, as store bigwigs search for the key and the workers wonder if they’ll get fired.

O’Leary has published a new book, “The State of My State: A Native Son’s Search for West Virginia.”

O’Leary has published a new book, “The Stateof My State: A Native Son’s Search for West Virginia.”

“Valu-Mart” won the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Ruby Lloyd Apsey Award, an honor given for plays that confront racial or ethnic issues.

O’Leary said he set out to craft a play that could shine light on the gap that still exists between black and white America. “We’ve come a long way but we haven’t fully closed the distance,” he said. “In most communities, cultural segregation is still a very real phenomenon.”

He also has written “Wine to Blood,” in which a BBC reporter covering the Spanish Civil War struggles to regain his convictions, and “The Boy In The Box,” a one-man play about an elderly man who spent the first 15 years of his life confined by his mother in a box. It will be produced next year at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

His “Beneath Shelton Laurel” imagines the aftermath following a Confederate massacre of unarmed civilians, a little-known tragedy that took place in the remote mountains of North Carolina in 1863.

The two-act play originally was commissioned for the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill, N.C. It also was selected for an extended production at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

As a playwright, O’Leary has won numerous awards presented by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Arts Club, the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and others.

Now O’Leary is garnering praise for his new book.

Marc Harshman, the state’s Poet Laureate, for example, has described “State of My State” as “a must-read for anyone concerned about not only the future of West Virginia, but other states in Appalachia.”

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