PUTNEY — David Stern and the Wild Goose Players (WGP) partner again with Sean Hurley to produce Hurley's latest, Claire in the Chair in the Cimetière. It opened Nov. 10, and the production's offered again this weekend at Next Stage.
"This is another world premiere from our playwright-in-residence," says Stern of the play, described in its publicity materials as "a whimsical comedy about life and death and finding one's purpose in the unlikeliest of places."
It's both a "comedy and a moving piece of theater," Stern adds.
A multifaceted artist and theater person, Stern first connected with Hurley in 2015 - not as a creative collaborator but as the subject of a public radio news segment that Hurley was reporting for New Hampshire Public Radio.
"He did a story about our production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," Stern says. Only after the two had "become entrenched in each other's work" did Stern learn that Hurley was a playwright as well as an award-winning journalist, he said.
The first play that Stern and Hurley collaborated on last January was Hurley's Food & Shelter, which Stern called "one of the greatest pieces of writing in the dramatic literature tradition in the English language[...]."
"He writes in a surrealistic form, so if you're clinging to understanding […] every single bit, you'd find him frustrating," Stern says, likening Hurley's work to that of Irish literary powerhouse Samuel Beckett.
Claire in the Chair, Stern explains, is "a beautiful comedy about 27-year-old Claire who's moved to the local cemetery so her twin, Blaire, can live fully."
"Blaire has arranged for food, water, soap, books, clothes. Everything has been prepared for Claire's long life with the dead. She's visited by a gravedigger, an undertaker, and a chef - a set of clowns, but not silly ones," he says. "More the typical Shakespearean clown - wise and perspicacious."
The problem is, Stern adds, that "she hasn't told [them] she's not dying, while each expresses a pressing need for Claire's life to be as short as possible."
The play, he says, is "a show about the soul and the body," Stern continues.
"The soul is connected to the body in childhood, but as we grow and we become concerned with the stuff in our lives - whatever that may be - the soul takes up residence alongside the body, [but] separate."
He explains that the viewer will experience "cognitive dissonance around the twins."
"It's poetic, brilliant, multileveled, discoverable -but not a simple piece of writing," Stern says.
A reporter and playwright
A frequent presence at rehearsals despite the long drive from his Thornton, New Hampshire, home, Hurley has earned recognition as a public radio reporter, podcaster, TV staff writer, and performer, and he has garnered awards in various arenas. His work won New Hampshire Public Radio a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow award from the Radio Television Digital News Association for sports reporting.
His stories have aired nationally on NPR's Here and Now, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered; his TV credits include Amazon's Patriot and Epix's Perpetual Grace, LTD.
In the end, though, he reflects: "I'm probably most naturally a playwright. My mind just seems to embrace the sand and sea of it."
About the admittedly quirky Claire, Hurley says, "I love cemeteries. [...] Even though graveyards are especially quiet and cut away and unto themselves, they also offer that kind of still and thoughtless and exhilarating experience you get when you climb a mountain, or go to the sea, or walk into some enormous stadium."
An avid runner, Hurley says, "I like to run in the mountains and along trails, and I've found six or seven old family cemeteries out in the woods. I like to revisit those places, too. I feel like my feet are on the ground in a graveyard."
More practically, he says, Food & Shelter, his first play with Stern, was "a technical monster."
"So I wanted to write something simple," he says. "A simple set that didn't kill David."
A tug-of-war notion
One day, while visiting the local cemetery, Hurley says he "saw a woman sitting in a chair at one of the graves."
"It was such a striking image," he says. "I just started wondering about her and her chair. This idea of wanting to spend such time by a grave in this way [led him to wonder] if there was anyone who'd ever moved into a cemetery, to live, maybe, with someone they loved so much they couldn't bear to be away from them."
"As I began to see Claire carrying a chair into the cemetery to live out her days, I also saw that she was being followed by the local gravedigger," Hurley says.
And that, in turn, led Hurley to ask himself: "What if she was there to live, but the gravedigger thought she'd come to die? What if he started digging out her grave?"
And what if the tombstone maker "started making her tombstone and the undertaker started bringing casket samples by?"
"I like this tug-of-war notion of life being a thing you try to figure out while all around you is preparing for your death," Hurley says. "To some extent, I think this is a story about love and death."
Cast and crew share their thoughts
P.J. Mead, who plays the title character, says "working on Claire has been wonderful. [...] Certainly the most compelling part is being part of the creation of a new play. Being able to work with the author, ask questions, and see the process has been incredibly interesting."
Colleen Harris, whose character - the larger-than-life Alice Algren - "runs through emotions like a person trying on hats," adds that "the language in the play is both poetic and colloquial, and the characters leap off the page."
"As an actor, I'm often interpreting the words of a playwright who wrote them decades or centuries ago," Harris says. "In this process, he's in the room! It's gratifying to know that the work I do, the feedback I give, [...] will have a lasting impact on this piece of art."
Dom DiBenedetto, playing Charlie Dunn, concurs.
"One of the most exciting aspects of the process has been working with the playwright as we rehearse," he says. "The conversations we've had about the characters and the plot have helped frame our show so much, and the script even had adjustments here and there based on our work in that way.
"Since our seated reading of the original draft, I have been captivated by Claire in the Chair," DiBenedetto continues. "Something about the poetry of the informality of the characters' speech as well as the juxtaposition of the quaintness of a cemetery and the hugeness of life and death, I suppose."
Kristina Miema, who plays Blaire, adds, "I have had a lot of fun exploring my character and really getting to know her. I've never been in a show quite like this."
Costumer Sandy Klein says, "I think part of the challenge was landing on an interpretation of this very abstract play that satisfies my own inner logic."
But, she adds, "it was less of a challenge because the casting was so spot on."
"When an actor fits a character so seamlessly, the costume design becomes more intuitive and obvious - like you're just filling in the other third of an existing work of art," Klein says. " As I watch [rehearsals] I am still laughing (very loudly) as all the nuanced (and audacious!) character work is coming through. I think people are going to really enjoy this."
"It's a [tightrope] act to hold the balance between surreality and reality. I'm excited to see how the audience reacts to the world we've created," says Harris.
Oxymoronically tagged a "sparklingly dark comedy," Claire in the Chair in the Cimetière is at Next Stage Arts, 15 Kimball Hill, in Putney on Friday, Nov. 17 through Sunday, Nov. 19. Tickets are $20 and are available at wildgooseplayers.com/tickets.
This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.