It’s feast or famine out there in theater land, right? Sometimes — and that, of course, means usually — you can’t even give your stuff away, and sometimes ... well, sometimes things really start to groove. Just ask Ann Marie Shea, the Worcester-based playwright who is starting the new year in a big way, with three productions — one full-length play and a couple of 10-minute shorts. On the same weekend, of course. And in different parts of the state: Her full-length play “Last Word,” which looks at the unraveling of a hotshot poet and lit professor’s life, kicks off this year’s New Works Festival, and “Old Friends, New Benefits,” a Shea short about a sudden, undeniable and inconvenient love in the over-60 set, gets a reading the following day. All of this happening while Turtle Lane Playhouse in Auburndale stages “Family Archive,”a one-act play, and as Shea prepares to take her one-act, one-woman show “Madame Secretary Frances Perkins,” about Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial secretary of labor — and Worcester native — on the road.
Shea, who took her doctorate in theater education at New York University in 1984, “dabbled” at playwriting while teaching at Worcester State College, but “decided to go at it in a more orderly way” after she retired five years ago, and has had shows produced close to home, in Worcester and Boston, but also some far-flung locations, like Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. One of her shows, a short called "With Improvements by the Actors,” in which actors “improve” the first draft of the author’s new Danish play in rehearsal, got picked up by Shakespeare and Company, after a production at the 2004 Boston Theatre Marathon. It’s been published. In the Netherlands. It’s sitting on her bookshelves, in a language she doesn’t understand — Dutch or Frisian. “I’m not even sure which one it is,” she says. Whatever. It’s all Greek to her.
“Last Word,” which will be staged Jan. 21 at the Firehouse Center, looks at a famous poet, an academic, who is incapacitated by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair. He can hear and think, but is unable to respond. He is attended to by his much-younger wife, a former student the snake married years before. This is a guy who has been “a bit of a jerk for much of his life,” says Shea. “He’s a great poet, but not as great as people think as a person, and now his problems from the past are coming home to roost.” He gets his story out there through “extended asides,” conversations with the audience that no one onstage can hear. You might think that the worst has happened to him, that he’s gotten his comeuppance, but, the playwright says, “we have one more thing to afflict him with.” That comes when an ambitious young scholar — the worst kind — and a mysterious, troubled girl show up on the professor’s doorstep and threaten what little comfort is left of the older couple's relationship. And, no, the story is not as autobiographically juicy as you might think: It was inspired by a close female friend who had a stroke eight years ago and can no longer speak.
“Old Friends, New Benefits” takes a different approach, looking at potential stumbling blocks at the beginning of what could be a magical romance — or, just as likely, an utter disaster of a hookup — for two people in their 60s, both widowed, who hook up at a high school reunion and are crazy in love with each other, but have to figure out how to make it work. Like most 10-minute plays, it is packed with a lot of questions — while, possibly, providing a framework for a longer, more detailed production.
Her one-act play “Family Archive” looks at two sisters “doing that awful thing we all have to deal with eventually,” she says: clearing out the family house after the last parent dies, digging through the clutter of a lifetime — and uncovering a long and happily forgotten family secret.
Says Shea, it’s nice — and unexpected — to be busy in playwriting outside the study.
“It’s funny,” she says. “Sometimes you go months and months, you can’t even get arrested, and then sometimes … well, I guess you should just enjoy it while it lasts.”
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: “Last Word” by Ann Marie Shea will open this year’s New Works Festival at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Firehouse Center. The production features performances by Edward Speck, Catherine Colby, Brian Sargent and Kate Braun. Her short “Old Friends, New Benefits” will be one of six 10-minute plays staged on Jan. 22. It will be directed by Anna Smulowitz. The cast features Pam Battinsach and Mike Pingree. The festival runs Jan. 21-22 and Jan. 28-29. Single show tickets are $12. A limited number of four-day passes will be offered at $36. For a complete schedule, click here. For more information, check out the Firehouse web or call 978-462-7336.