The play looks at three characters — a teenage boy, a teenage girl and an older woman. The girl is trying to find, or at least learn something about, her birthmother, whom she has never met. But each is “searching for someone or something missing in their lives,” says McLindon. “They’re trying to fill a void.” It’s set in a cemetery on Halloween and weaves themes of life, death, discovery and loss.
And it’s a comedy.
“What? A play that takes place in a cemetery doesn’t sound funny?” McLindon says, laughing. “No, it’s a difficult play to categorize. Ultimately, it's very serious, but there’s a lot of comedy along the way.” Or as director Sherry Bonder put it, the playwright tackles heavy material but does it with a light touch. “It’s serious and redemptive,” says Bonder, who has worked with Theater in the Open for more than 15 years and is an adolescent therapist. “There’s a lot of humanity in the play. It’s a very serious, but balanced approach.”
Before he was a playwright, he was a lawyer, taking home a law degree from Harvard, graduating magna cum laude and serving as editor of the Harvard Law Review. He practiced law, but resigned his partnership in a Beantown firm to write.
And while it might seem like a pretty dicey move, McLindon points out that “no career choice is especially stable these days.” He was actually a writer before he was a lawyer, scribbling for Yankee Magazine and the Boston Phoenix, as well as serving as speechwriter for presidents of the American Bar Association and for the Harvard Law Review. “I never stopped writing,” he says. And he never stopped lawyering either. He practices civil law part time in western Massachusetts - necessary because, despite his track record on this side of the Merrimack, it’s not easy getting from manuscript to playbill: “Writing is easy enough; getting established as a writer is always slow going.” At any given time, he has two full-length plays and several shorts going.
The premiere production will feature Ashley Risteen, whose last role was in the Actors Studio production of “Picnic,” and Eliot Johnson, last seen in the Michael Wainstein production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” in the teen roles. They will be working with Astrid Lorentzson, a veteran of many local productions and, like Bonder, a therapist who works with adolescents and teens. The New Works reading will be the first time McLindon has ever seen “Dead and Buried” staged in any manner - and the production is crucial. “It’s very helpful to a writer to see a work in progress,” he says. “Hearing it out loud helps; it gives you a perspective you’ve never had before. I hope it feels like a complete piece. Thing is, you don’t necessarily know until you see it living and breathing on the stage. Every play has its own course.”
The ‘wright’ stuff
It is very different from his previous two New Works offerings, both of which tackled religious themes: “Faith,” last year’s winning production, looks at an adolescent boy’s struggle to find meaning in life and to be “special.” He longs to be given a message from God and won’t give up until he receives it. “The Garden of Dromore,” which was renamed “Dusk,” looks at the aftermath of the Catholic clergy sex scandal - and how those who spoke out were painted as enemies of the church if they dared to speak out. Why the shift in subject matter? “It’s hard to tell why you write something and not something else,” he says.
How long will it take before “Dead and Buried,” which the playwright still very much considers a work in progress, is finally done? McLindon says it’s anybody’s guess. He made changes to “Distant Music,” his first play, complete in 2005, after each of its five productions - some of the changes minor, just tweaks, but changes nonetheless. The play is about to be published this year. It is, he says, done - not necessarily because there are no possible changes that could be made, but because it is in print once and for all, for better or worse.
THE FACTS, THE FOLKS: The New Works Festival runs Jan. 22-23 and Jan. 29-30 at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. The first weekend will open with “Dead and Buried,” the new full-length play by James McLindon. The following night will feature half of the 14-shorts accepted into the festival. The second weekend will open with a staged reading of “pudding,” a new full-length play by Michael Tooher, followed, the next day, by the remaining shorts. Show times are 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. A limited number of four-day passes are available for $35 each. For information, call 978-462-7336 or go online to firehouse.org.
Friday, Jan. 22: "Dead and Buried,” drama by James McLindon, starring Astrid Lorentzson, Ashley Risteen and Eliot Johnson. Directed by Sherry Bonder.
Saturday, Jan. 23: “Soldier Boy,” drama by Leslie Powell, starring Kate Bossi and Jesiah Hammond; directed by Tim Diering. “No Strings Attached,” comedy by Kara Sorenson, starring Jennifer Wilson, Phil Thompson, Eric Lamarche and Steve Sacchetti; directed by Lois Honegger. “Knowing,” comedy by Gregory Hischak, starring Pam Battin-Sacks and Danny Sklar; directed by Cynthia Arsenault. “If You Love,” drama by Marc Clopton, starring John Sheedy and Jesiah Hammond; directed by Anna Smulowitz. “Sleeping with the Cat 1963,” drama by Daniel Sklar, starring Maureen Daley and Mary Shapiro; directed by Alan Huisman. “Jock Itch,” comedy by George Sauer, starring Sandy Farrier and Brad Ritchie; directed by Jack Rushton; “Touching Elephants,” drama-comedy by Stephen Faria, starring Gloria Papert, Dennis Flynn and Victor Atkins; directed by Diana Kerry.
Friday, Jan. 29: “Pudding,” comedy by Michael Tooher, starring Jennifer Wilson and Terry Blanchard, with Mary Shapiro, Kathy Isabel, Terry Donohue, Sherry Bonder, Julie McConechie, Myron Moss and Sam Szabo; directed by Maureen Daley
Saturday, Jan. 30: "Egg Whites and Miracles,” comedy by Stephen Faria, starring Missy Chabot, Irene Sanders and Fontaine Dollas Dubus, directed by Kimm Wilkinson. “Free Will and Kat,” drama by Deirdre Girard, starring Kayt Tommasino and Teddy Speck; directed by Stephen Haley. “Last Dance,” comedy by Kerry Zagarella, starring Bruce Anderson, Tracy Bickel, Kari Nickou and Jack Rushton; directed by Suzanne Bryan. “A Simile,” comedy by Robert B. Boulrice; directed by David Frank. “A Crooked Chapatti,” comedy by Priya Tahiliani, directed by Kathy Isabel. “Amenities,” comedy by Gregory Hischak, starring Stephen Faria, Kari Nickou, Irene Sanders and Steve Turner; directed by Anne Easter Smith.