BLUE HILL — When Maine author Monica Wood’s debut play opens, we meet Ernie Donahue, a proud and loyal man who has worked 41 of his 60 years in the local Maine paper mill, where his father worked before him and his son now works as well.
Ernie met his wife when they were 7 and still loves her dearly. Ernie is a man who keeps his feelings to himself and does not ask for much, but the life he has worked so hard to maintain for his family is crumbling. His wife has pancreatic cancer and the paper mill is in its fourth month of a strike that has divided the town and threatens to divide the Donahue family as well.
New Surry Theatre will stage Wood’s powerful play “Papermaker” for seven performances starting Friday, Feb. 22, and running through March 9 at the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater.
Directed by Johannah Blackman, “Papermaker” stars Michael McFarland as Ernie Donahue, Leanne Nickon as Marie Donahue, Randall Simons as Henry McCoy, Cora Hutchins as Emily McCoy, Tucker Atwood as Jake Donahue and Lori Sitzabee as Nancy Letourneau.
“I saw Monica’s play when it premiered in Portland and was moved by her ability to combine a very thematic story with very real characters and emotions,” Blackman said. “‘Papermaker’ is an important play for this moment; it powerfully explores our inability to see people on the opposite side of any tension as whole, real people. But it does this in the context of a very moving story driven by great characters.”
Wood, author of beloved novels like “When We Were the Kennedys,” grew up in Mexico, Maine, across the river from the Oxford paper mill in Rumford. Her play, and the short story from which it grew (“Ernie’s Ark”), was inspired by her experience of the 1986 strike in Rumford.
The set includes a mural painted by Judy Taylor (the Maine artist who painted the powerful Labor Mural now on display at the Maine State Museum) and a group of her students.
In “Papermaker,” Ernie is vice president of the local, striking union but instead of spending his time in union meetings and at the picket line, Ernie is building an ark in his backyard in fictional Abbot Falls.
As Ernie hammers boards together in Maine, many miles away, Henry John McCoy, owner of the Abbot Falls paper mill, paces his Manhattan apartment. He is nervous about an upcoming ruling on the strike and his decision to bring in replacement workers — “scabs” — and Henry is rarely nervous. Little does he know that his only child, a daughter, is about to add to his tension by confronting him with his years of failure as a father.
These two men live worlds apart, but the story that unfolds brings them closer than they could ever imagine, as two families strive to understand both kin and strangers on both sides of the picket line.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 22-23, March 1-2 and March 8-9, and at 3 p.m. on March 3. Tickets cost $18 per adult and $15 for students and seniors. To reserve seats, call 200-4720 or visit newsurrytheatre.org.