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Theater & art

A comedy of human desperation in ‘Split’

Will Neely, Julie Cleveland, Ariane Grossi in “A Play for An All White Stage,” part of “Split — Tales of Escape.”

Photos by Fogle

Will Neely, Julie Cleveland, Ariane Grossi in “A Play for An All White Stage,” part of “Split — Tales of Escape.”

A cave collapse traps a man and a woman, strangers. She’s pinned against the wall, but he’s the one losing hope.

A trio of Greenpeace activists, stranded and hungry on the Arctic ice, argues over whether a colleague who just died might be tasty.

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A brittle family hides in the attic to escape their own Christmas party and each other, as well as the Bundt cake.

SPLIT — Tales of Escape

STC Theater, 90 Lafayette St, Salem 978-790-8546. www.salemtheatre.com

Presenting organizations:
Salem Theatre Company
Date of first performance:
March 27
Date closing:
April 14
Ticket price:
$25

Playwright Nikole Beckwith is clearly familiar with the varieties of human desperation. But the Newburyport native seems to be in a pretty good place herself.

Beckwith, 32, just returned to her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., from a residency at the National Theatre Studio in London, where she wrote a play. She’s on a screenwriting fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she hopes to direct a film based on a script of hers this summer.

‘A lot of my plays do center on themes of identity and survival. That’s what makes our humanity, isn’t it? Figuring out who we are and how to live, for better or worse?’

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Now Salem Theatre Company is producing a trio of her one-act comedies under the title “Split — Tales of Escape,” which begins performances Wednesday. It’s not hard to tell which play is which among “Stuck in a Cave,” “Play for an All White Stage,” and “Holiday Play.”

“These plays were all written at different times for different reasons, but they fit quite well together, because a lot of my plays do center on themes of identity and survival,” Beckwith says. “That’s what makes our humanity, isn’t it? Figuring out who we are and how to live, for better or worse?”

Playwright Nikole Beckwith.

photo by Fogle

Playwright Nikole Beckwith.

As a high schooler at Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Beckwith spent much of her time working on plays. She also took acting classes in Newburyport, and rather than go to college, began working as an actress. But the Salem company’s artistic director, John Fogle, says there’s ample reason to be glad she found her way to the keyboard.

“She has a voice,” Fogle says. “She’s got a sly perspective and wit about the choices we make in life.”

Fogle spotted her in a stage role at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth, N.H., about a decade ago, he says. He took note of her performance and followed her career for a couple of years until she left the local scene for New York. More recently he became friendly with a Beverly Farms actor who’s performed in some Salem shows, Sarah Carlin, and her husband, Derek Beckwith.

“It took a year or two to come out that he was Nikole’s dad, but then I reconnected with her exploits,” Fogle says. Beckwith came to see one of the company’s shows in the fall. And when Salem discovered that it had a hole in its schedule due to a rights issue, it took only a Facebook message to elicit her scripts, Fogle says.

“She knows how to put a sentence together and how to write dialogue you can imagine people saying,” he says. “She’s got an eye for quirky, complex situations that seem sort of silly at first but turn out to be something more.”

Though the playwright grew up on the North Shore and says her “heart still belongs to the ’Port,” it’s a hard place to make a living on the stage. While she was still working low-paying jobs by day there and acting in local theater at night, she connected with playwright and actor Eric Bogosian at a new-plays workshop in Florida, her expenses covered in part by a fund-raiser organized by her Newburyport friends. Afterward he encouraged her to come to New York. It was a couple of years later, after she lost a day job, that she finally moved to the city in 2005 and signed on as his assistant.

“I just thought, what am I doing? I got fired from a shoe store,” she says with a laugh. “And the first person I called after I got fired was Eric Bogosian.”

As an actor, she got a “Law & Order” episode and caught some attention in a production of Joshua Conkel’s play “MilkMilkLemonade,” but she found herself “one of a million” actors in New York. With Bogosian as a role model, she devoted herself more to writing for both stage and screen, and the results have steered her further in that direction. Now she’s hoping to direct her script, “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” which was on the 2012 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays making the Hollywood rounds.

The Salem production has hit surprisingly close to home.

“In ‘Play for an All White Stage,’ there’s that part of Todd, basically he’s just a dead body,” Beckwith says. “So just jokingly I said to my dad, ‘The part was written for you!’ Because he’s never acted before.” Carlin, her stepmother, was already planning to audition for the production. “And just as a wishful joke I said, ‘Dad, you should audition for Todd.’ And so he did. And instead of getting cast as Todd, he got cast in the lead in ‘Stuck in a Cave.’ ”

Later, by text, she says she’s learned that her father is also going to play Todd. It’s not like there are more lines to memorize, after all. And Carlin, it turned out, had to be out of town for rehearsals, so she can’t be in the show.

“Irony abounds,” Beckwith says.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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