Two new Clubbed Thumb plays take their writers back home
Both Jaclyn Backhaus and Kate E. Ryan have written plays set in far-flung locales, from ancient Greece (Ryan's Women of Trachis
) to the inside of a whale (Backhaus's Bull's Hollow
). Coincidentally, though, both of their new plays, premiering this month as part of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2015
, are set in their respective home states: Ryan's Card and Gift
unfolds in a small town in northern New Hampshire, while Backhaus's Men on Boats
takes place in Arizona's Grand Canyon. (Card and Gift
runs June 4-14, Men on Boats
June 19-29, at the Wild Project.)
"New Hampshire hasn't been a source for most of my work," concedes Ryan, who was raised in the southern part of the state, about an hour from Boston. (She now lives in California.) "I guess as I've gotten older and moved away, I've been able to reflect and become more interested in New Hampshire than I was when I was younger. The places from your childhood -- those stay with you."
Set in a small gift shop in a failing tourist town, Card and Gift
is about the women who work there, though "work" is probably too rigorous a word for the activity that transpires among middle-aged Lila, who inherited the shop from her late parents, and her distracted employees, Annette and Shana. A former schoolteacher, Annette is far more interested in a homespun female presidential candidate who's about to run in the primary, while young Shana is after a light summer job before moving – somewhere, anywhere – out of state.
Early on, Shana lays down a thematic marker with this startling statement: "Isn't it horrible to know the same people for years and years?" Lila's response is a silent pause for consideration.
"The play is a lot about a young woman's view of older women, and the things that she sees in them that might be kind of terrifying to her -- particularly living in a small town, which for her must feel like a trap," says Ryan.
Card and Gift
is also about that pause for consideration. "The ties these women form aren't always expressed," Ryan says. "It's kind of hard living. It's very cold up there. People are more reserved." She jokes that while New Hampshire's motto is the chest-puffing, Revolutionary War-era ultimatum "Live Free or Die," for the low-temperature characters in her show the real maxim might be: "Live quietly and die."
A quiet existence is hardly the lot of the 10 explorers in Backhaus's Men on Boats
, which follows the infamous 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran charged with charting the course of the Colorado River through the wilds of the Grand Canyon. Backhaus, who grew up in Phoenix, remembers being captivated by her dad's copy of Powell's journals.
"There were lithographs in it, and this one picture terrified me as a young child: It showed Powell hanging off a cliff by his one arm."
How are she and her director, Will Davis, going to create the roiling Colorado River in the intimate space at HERE? "The challenge is how to make the people onstage feel very small, and to capture the majesty of the canyon in some way," says Backhaus, who now lives in Brooklyn. "There will be a lot of rushing-water sounds."
But Men on Boats
isn't quite interested in theatrical realism, she says. "It's a little more impressionistic. In looking at Powell's accounts and matching them with journals of three other guys who went – there's a level in the play of history as it's told and retold, where the point of view and the reality shift."
While the rugged adventurers with Powell were a ragtag band who were "definitely more about the thrill than the social value" of exploration, Backhaus says, they unwittingly paved the way for a river-rafting tourist industry. "I saw online that you can now ride the river accompanied on the entire journey by a string quartet."
Rob Weinert-Kendt is Senior Editor at American Theatre
Photo: Mia Katigbak in rehearsal for Card and Gift, taken by Elke Young