It’s a premise that worked spectacularly well for at least one other writer from Pennsylvania: An ex-basketball hero from a dreary town in the state looks for redemption amid the rubble of a troubled adulthood.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom got rich and fat in four acclaimed John Updike novels, but he never recaptured the glory. Now Mare Sheehan, the former high school hoops star turned detective who’s the ponytailed protagonist in HBO’s Mare of Easttown, is seeking salvation of her own.
“The height of her life happened at 17 or 18,” explained Brad Ingelsby, the Berwyn-bred creator, writer, and executive producer of the show that’s generated considerable attention. and has its finale Sunday night. “For a lot of athletes, it’s hard to replicate that kind of adulation. At a young age, you’re looked up to, you hold a certain place in the collective memory of a place. Then you fall out of that and think, ‘How am I ever going to replicate that again?’ The answer is you probably won’t.”
Placing basketball at the center of the project came naturally to Ingelsby, 41, whose most recent screenplay was 2020′s The Way Back, in which Ben Affleck also portrays an ex-high school hoops star. Ingelsby’s father, Tom, was a Villanova standout who played three seasons in the NBA and ABA. Older brother Martin started three years at Notre Dame and now is the University of Delaware’s head coach. An uncle, Ed Hastings — a former Catholic priest who shares his name with a priest in Mare — was the elder Ingelsby’s teammate on Villanova’s 1971 NCAA runners-up.
The future writer played a little hoops too, his career topping out on Archbishop Carroll’s varsity in the late 1990s.
“Basketball was a huge part of my life,” he said. “But I was never going to play at the college level and I really didn’t have an interest in that. I had other things I wanted to pursue.”
He pursued them so avidly that in just a decade in Hollywood he’s written screenplays for eight films. And while doing so, the fan of episodic TV mysteries like Broadchurch, True Detective, and The Killing kept the idea for something similar on his mind’s back burner.
“I had a very specific vision. I wanted to tell a story about home and the people I grew up with and yet make it entertaining and wrap a mystery around it,” he said. “So I wrote a couple of episodes and we started putting pieces together. We knew we had to get a great actress and when Kate [Winslet, the show’s star] was mentioned, I was like, ‘Oh my God, will she even read it?’ I never imagined she would.”
The Britain-born Winslet, Ingelsby said, looked at the role of a blue-collar detective as both a challenge and a change of pace. She’d never held a gun in any of her films and she’d just finished Ammonite, the latest in a series of stylized costume pieces.
Ingelsby’s Delaware County roots helped him flesh out Mare. It’s set in the fictional Delco community of Easttown, a place where the accents and fast-food addictions are as thick as the intrigue. The series’ details and local references ring so true that people are surprised to learn Ingelsby was raised on the Main Line.
“But my wife grew up in Aston, about a mile from Sun Center Studios, where we were headquartered while shooting,” he said. “One grandmother lived in Drexel Hill and we went there every Thursday for dinner. My dad grew up in Springfield. And he really came from nothing. So even though Berwyn is a nice, comfortable place to live, there was never a sense of money or luxury. There was always this strong work ethic, a blue-collar value system.”
It was Ingelsby’s wife, in fact, who initially served as the voice model for Winslet, whose efforts to sound authentically “Delco” have created considerable pop-culture buzz and a Saturday Night Live skit.
“We told Kate: ‘There’s a very specific accent where the story takes place. It’s kind of hard to get down, so maybe we can sort of land somewhere in the middle,’ ” said Ingelsby, who called the SNL homage “hilarious.” “But Kate was adamant. She said, ‘If we’re going to tell a story about this community and this part of the world, then it has to be right.’ And once Kate did that, everyone else came on board.”
He was determined to make Mare’s milieu just as authentic, layering in real place names and regionally specific phrases, referencing products like Wawa coffee, Coco’s cheesesteaks, and Yuengling beer. (Those commercial references were OK’d by HBO, whose policy permits them as long as the products aren’t cast in a negative light.)
“The details and the attention paid to the ordinary everyday grind of life, that was interesting to me,” Ingelsby said. “That helped us tap into Mare’s life in a way we haven’t seen before.”
The second-oldest of five, Ingelsby grew up a shy, sensitive, stuttering youngster. Not an overly avid reader, he instead honed his future sensibilities by listening and watching.
“My stutter was really bad. I had years of speech lessons,” he said. “You’re afraid of being laughed at, so there’s a desire to listen as opposed to talk. I was always content to listen and observe the way people talk.”
At Villanova, he was an unenthusiastic business major when a screenwriting course he took on a whim opened his eyes.
“I loved it and one day the teacher pulled me aside and said: ‘Hey, is this something you’re interested in? Because you’re really way more passionate about it than the other kids,’” Ingelsby recalled. “That was the nudge I needed to really think of it as a life path. I started writing and fell in love with it.”
After college, he taught at St. Patrick’s School in Malvern and rented movies as fast as his Berwyn video store would allow. He eventually enrolled at the American Film Institute School in L.A. One summer he took a job at Cedar Point, an Ohio amusement park, turning that experience into his first screenplay, which became 2013′s Out of the Furnace.
A father of three, Ingelsby lives in Irvine, Calif. He recently purchased a home in a new Berwyn development and plans to move back by the end of the year. It seems a more fitting locale for the man who captured this area’s attitudes so faithfully in Mare.
And if working in his hometown, amid people who know his virtues and faults, proves challenging, he can always look to his fictional detective for guidance.
“Mare was a hero, but at this point in the story all those who embraced her are turning on her,” he said. “They’re saying: ‘Hey, you haven’t solved this case. You’re letting us down.’ … How will she get off the ground and respond? That’s what’s interesting to me, that layer of faded glory.”