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Stages

From Paula Plum, a new reading of poet Millay

Eric Levenson

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was no Emily Dickinson, quietly living a life of the mind.

Millay, who went by “Vincent,” was a two-fisted drinker and later a morphine addict, hugely famous and a Pulitzer Prize winner, and she took both men and women as lovers.

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“Her poem ‘God’s World’ has always been one of my favorites,” actress Paula Plum says, and quotes: “ ‘O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!’ ”

Monday at the Boston Center for the Arts, SpeakEasy Stage Company will present a staged reading of “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” Plum’s first full-length play, which tells Millay’s story from her difficult youth in Maine to her final days at her country estate in Austerlitz, N.Y., not far from Stockbridge.

Having read Millay’s poems and a couple of biographies, Plum says, “I started thinking, why hasn’t somebody made a movie? If a life is this sensational, this passionate, why hasn’t it been put on the screen? I was just compelled to write something about her life.”

Millay has been the subject of a few documentaries, including “Burning Candles” and “Millay at Steepletop,” but Plum is going for something more dramatic.

The play jumps around in dreamlike fashion, only loosely chronological, with Young Vincent and Old Vincent onstage simultaneously throughout, the elder commenting on the action and taking over a juicy scene.

‘I started thinking, why hasn’t somebody made a movie [about Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay]? If a life is this sensational, this passionate, why hasn’t it been put on the screen? I was just compelled to write something about her life.’

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Plum will read the part of Old Vincent, with Elizabeth Anne Rimar as Young Vincent. The cast also includes Nancy E. Carroll as Millay’s mother, Cora, and Will McGarrahan as Millay’s husband, Eugen Boissevain.

Writing the play was part of Plum’s sojourn with SpeakEasy via a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship that she won in 2009. The $25,000 fellowship is intended to support her artistic development and deepen her relationship with the company. Besides researching and writing the play, Plum studied acting and movement near Paris, mask-making in France and California. She taught workshops at SpeakEasy, which got an additional $7,500 to fund activities such as the workshops and the reading.

When Plum badly injured her foot doing “assisted backflips” in a movement class, in France, the results were more than a year on crutches or a cane, an extra year to finish what was supposed to have been three years of fellowship work — and plenty of time to write “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.”

Plum is one of Boston’s busiest and best-known actresses. Currently appearing in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Pericles,” she will next move into a monthlong stint in “Shear Madness.” The many SpeakEasy productions in which she has appeared include “Clybourne Park” and “Body Awareness.” What made her a good choice for the fellowship, says SpeakEasy producing artistic director Paul Daigneault, is that “even as somebody who’s already had an esteemed career . . . she is still pushing herself to try new things.”

SpeakEasy assigned Walt McGough as a dramaturg to help Plum develop the play. McGough works part time in the company office and is a playwright himself (“Priscilla Dreams the Answer”). The pair got the script to “a place where it’s ready to be workshopped, and after this hopefully it will go on to bigger and better things,” Daigneault says.

Plum’s fellowship may also produce an unexpected byproduct, a second play that Daigneault says he’s excited about. Studying in France at the École Philippe Gaulier became an ordeal for Plum, as she felt bullied and insulted by the teaching methods of the school’s founder. She vented her anger in blog posts. Now there is, gestating, a show called “Philippe Gaulier Must Die.”

Rallying around
small theaters

“BOSTON: please consider seeing a play this weekend, especially at one of the small companies. We’re really hurting from the cancellations this week,” Ilana Brownstein, director of new play development at Company One, wrote on Facebook last Saturday, the day after the April 19 manhunt. “So, in solidarity with this city, in celebration of the resilience of the human spirit, and for the power of what art can do when we gather in one room to experience it together, please see a play.”

Company One canceled the April 19 performance of “She Kills Monsters,” but Brownstein says she was thinking less of Company One than of even smaller groups around the city.

Bill Doncaster says he was glued to constant news reports last week like everyone else, and he canceled the April 19 performance of “Bouncers,” which he directed for his Stickball Productions downstairs at Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge. But only eight performances were originally scheduled for the entire run, and an expected sellout on April 20 turned into a half-full house. So he has scheduled two additional performances for Sunday in hopes of making up what the company lost at the box office.

“We canceled Friday and were closing Saturday, so it was kind of a bummer,” says Jessie Baxter, literary director and a founder of Fresh Ink Theatre Company, which was playing “Girls’ Sports” at the 49-seat Factory Theatre. “But we sold out Saturday night. There was a big push for everybody to get out there and support each other. There was a sense of people wanting to be around other people.”

ART’s LBJ: Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston is about to go from the meth lab to the White House. The “Breaking Bad” star will portray Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s new political drama, “All the Way,” which kicks off the American Repertory Theater’s 2013-14 season Sept. 13. Cranston has won three Emmys playing chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White on the critically acclaimed cable show. “All the Way,” directed by Bill Rauch, depicts LBJ’s first year as president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Also in the cast are Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr., Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, and Reed Birney as Hubert Humphrey.

Joel Brown can be reached at
jbnbpt@gmail.com
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