BLUE HILL — A provocatively written play, directed well, with an excellent, talented cast and fine production values is the basic formula for a successful theatrical production. Well, New Surry Theatre’s current production of “Papermaker” checks all of these boxes and then some.
Based on her own short story “Ernie’s Ark,” which in turn was based on the Maine town of Rumford’s 1986 paper mill strike, playwright Monica Wood has crafted a story here that is tense, honest, heartbreaking and surprisingly funny.
At its center are two families who in various ways are deeply affected by the strike.
First, we meet mill owner Henry McCoy, who despite having hired “scabs” to keep the mill running during the strike, sees himself as a hero rather than the villain the local papers depict. He reads these unflattering news articles from the comfort of his New York apartment, far removed from the mounting tensions at his mill in Abbott Falls, Maine. We also meet his daughter Emily, a grad student who except for occasional phone calls, is largely estranged from her father.
Over in Abbott Falls we find mill worker and union Vice President Ernie Donohue who, for some reason even he can’t quite explain, is spending his time during the strike to build an ark in his backyard, much to the amused consternation of his wife Marie, whom we learn during a home visit from nurse Nancy Letourneau, is ill with cancer.
Nancy is not a particularly good nurse as she has been forced to return to the work since her husband is, as are most of the mill town’s citizens, on strike. This includes Henry and Marie’s son Jake who, while visiting his parents, expresses his concerns about being able to support his wife and new baby without his mill job. When Jake hints that he may consider crossing the picket line, his tolerant, loving parents react in much the same way as a Civil War-era Maine family might respond to their son joining the Confederate Army. More than religion, friendship and perhaps even family ties, it is solidarity with the union that binds this community together and every defection — or even the thought of it — leaves a deep wound.
In the course of the play, all these lives feature explosive events that bring out both the best and the worst qualities in each of them.
Randall Simons is completely convincing as the self-righteous mill owner Henry McCoy. While we are tempted to hate this man for his wealth and pomposity, he delivers with both biting wit and passion some well-reasoned points from the management perspective. His daughter who is the cause of the ensuing disharmonic convergence of characters is thoughtfully realized by Cora Hutchins, although she could be even more effective if she modulated her voice at times, without losing her excellent projection.
Mike McFarland, as Ernie, is quite simply a dream of a husband, despite all that noisy ark building. He is principled, protective and loving toward his ailing wife and wishes he were a better father. Although slow to anger, once there he is fierce.
As Marie, Leanne Nickon delivers what is perhaps her finest role. Although clearly frail, her Marie has a backbone of steel. As much as her husband protects her, she protects him from the worst of her suffering with grace and wry humor.
NST newcomer Tucker Atwood as Jake does a fine job of expressing his desperation over weighing his need to care for his family and essentially betraying his community to do so.
And Lori Sitzabee is the perfect representative of that community at large, making the transition from funny and caring when she pays her nursing visit to Marie and later filled with cold-hearted rage when asked to tend to an injured Henry McCoy, the agent of her family’s and her town’s distress.
There is not a whole lot of movement in this play, but the playwright’s sharp dialogue, the actors’ fast-paced timing, and Johannah Blackman’s fine direction — how she must have drilled them to purposely step on each other’s lines! — makes it feel as if it’s nonstop, edge-of-your-seat action throughout.
And who better than artist Judy Taylor whose, labor mural caused such a kerfuffle for the last governor, to paint the mill scenes in this play?
As ever, Elena Bourakovsky’s costumes also helped put us in the right era and define the characters, while the tech and backstage crews seemed to have run a flawless show at last Sunday’s matinee.
There are only a couple of more performances of “Papermaker,” at 7 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, March 8-9, at 7 p.m. at the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater. For tickets call 200-4720 or visit newsurrytheatre.org.