Thirty-nine years ago this month, a woman named Mary Hartman first appeared on television, sporting bangs, pigtails and a gingham dress. She looked terribly dazed about the "waxy yellow buildup" on her kitchen floor — and, oh yeah, the mass murder of five neighbors and their livestock that just took place in her sleepy neighborhood of Fernwood, Ohio.
"What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens," Mary said. Pause. "And the people. The people, of course."
Welcome to the offbeat world of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," a soap opera parody produced by Norman Lear ("All in the Family") that ran for a couple seasons and has inspired a stage adaptation receiving its premiere by Annex Theater.
The original version is now viewed as a cult TV classic. The deadpan humor (there was no laugh track) started with the title — a dig at how things invariably get repeated on traditional soap. Louise Lasser started in the title role.
There were spot-on imitations of soap opera cliches, especially long-lingering close-up shots, and the show's writers inserted just about any then-taboo topic to the meandering plot. The satire could sting.
That this mid-1970s product should inspire a theatrical treatment today says a lot about its potency.
Maggie Villegas, writer and director of the adaptation, is about to turn 30 — too young to have experienced "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" when it first aired. A friend introduced it to her a few years ago.
"I was hooked," Villegas says. "Only the first 24 episodes were available for public consumption at the time, but I knew that over 300 were made. I became obsessed with trying to find all of them."
That search was made easier when the complete set was released on DVD late in 2013. Villegas, co-founder of the cutting-edge EMP Collective in Baltimore, received the set for Christmas and soon had the idea for a theatrical version.
The original "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" was turned down by the major networks, but an undeterred Lear sold the show to individual stations around the country.
"He went the DIY route, if you will," Villegas says. "It was the first original television show that went directly into syndication. It's very compelling how it came on the air."
Even without the benefit of a major network, the show made waves and was discussed with great seriousness by cultural commentators. And, of course, it didn't take long for this parody to be parodied; a spoof on "The Carol Burnett Show" is probably the best-known example.
In preparing her homage to the original "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," Villegas sought to retain the elements that grabbed her when she first learned about life in Fernwood.
"I loved the fluctuations from hilarious comedy to the most heartbreaking moments," she says. "And it was so ahead of its time. They covered issues that even today are not dealt with on television. And they saw where our consumer society was heading."
On the TV show, hapless Mary Hartman goes through all sorts of traumas, including the discovery that her octogenarian grandfather is the "Fernwood Flasher." Various neighbors have their hands full with crises, too. And, of course, nothing seems to get entirely resolved.
"You can't ever be satisfied at the end of a soap opera," Villegas says with a laugh. "It's hard to say anything about the end of the play without giving it away, but it's definitely an open ending. The challenge was to make cohesive theater with a linear story line."
Villegas created her "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" expressly for Annex Theater, one of the DIY troupes that have emerged in Baltimore.
"Everyone in the cast took it upon themselves to learn about the TV show's characters and style, and they immediately fell for it," Villegas says. "I feel very lucky to work with them."