Call it synchronicity or coincidence, but several local theater companies have been exploring the idea of two people encountering each other again after many years apart. Attic Salt Theatre Company staged Gruesome Playground Injuries in July; Jason Williams directed Constellations at 35below in June; and now playwright Lucia Del Vecchio will premiere her original show, Better Strangers, at The Magnetic Theatre. Opening night is Saturday, Sept. 16.
“There’s a lot to be learned from looking back on your life and trying to figure out certain things around your own personal motivations in an intense situation, and if you handled it well,” says Del Vecchio. “And it’s kind of a fantasy. You don’t get to go back and talk to people very often. As a writer, being able to do the ‘what ifs’ on paper and onstage is the next best thing.”
Better Strangers follows novelist/professor John Lambert (played by Andrew Gall) who, upon encountering his former student Joanna Tilley (Emily Tynan McDaniel in her stage debut), seems to have no recollection of their previous interaction.
It’s a challenging show in many ways. “Watching what’s happened in the country in the past year … what women say is called into question all the time,” says Del Vecchio. “The onus is on us to prove what we say.” So what Joanna remembers from 20 years earlier is not only shaded by a society that questions her agency, but by the passing of time and the fallibility of memory.
Del Vecchio intentionally delved into the gray areas: “I don’t want people to come out and be on one side or the other,” she says, “but there is an inspiration there about holding people accountable.”
Better Strangers, a two-person drama, is a departure for the playwright, who is previously known for comical works such as MILF The Musical and Off the Rails. Of the latter, a farce, she says, “It has eight characters and was superfast-paced. I felt like I was driving a car and it was losing pieces as it was going downhill.” The new play, on the other hand, “was like pushing a car up a hill. Because it’s two people, every word matters. … It’s way more precise.”
One thing Del Vecchio has learned from the freedom afforded to her by The Magnetic Theatre, which produces one of her plays each year, it’s to attempt to do works she’s not sure she can pull off. Del Vecchio is a founding artistic associate of the theater and finds that her local connections help her to realize her ambitions for her plays in a way that makes her feel proud. Of a short play she once had produced in New York City, she recalls, “I bought a ticket and went to see it like everybody else. I got to email with the director once. … They did a good job, but it was weird.”
She continues, “Some playwrights are just writers. I’m really hands-on. … I have a very 360 [degree] view of theater because I’ve done all the roles. I like to be part of the process — it’s very satisfying.”
But one role Del Vecchio will not take on with Better Strangers is that of director. She not only happily handed over the reins to local actress and teacher Callan White, but says, “I actually wrote this hoping Callan would direct it, specifically.”
Of White, Del Vecchio says, “She’s an actor’s director. She’s really good at making you feel safe and challenging yourself. … I knew with this play, two actors — it’s a marathon for them — they needed to feel cared for.”
And, though Del Vecchio struggles to find time (between starting two businesses with her husband and raising a child) to write, she continues to fit it into her busy life in two- or three-hour blocks. It takes her two to four months to complete a script, and she has more ideas for the future — including a musical about parenting and an adaptation of an obscure book (both of which would require a grant to fund the projects) and a possible collaboration with Stephanie Hickling Beckman of Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective.
But her current focus is, of course, on mounting Better Strangers. “I am really curious to see how people react to it,” she says. “It’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation for some people. I’m excited about that, and trepidatious at the same time.”
WHAT: Better Strangers
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Low-priced previews Thursday and Friday, Sept. 14 and 15. Opening night is Saturday, Sept. 16. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 7. $12 previews/$16 all other performances