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Theater & art

Playwright Thurber reckons with her turbulent past

Lucy Thurber directs actors in “Ashville,”  the latest of her Hill Town Plays, a collection of five dramas that center on her years growing up in Western Mass.

Brian Harkin/For the New York Times

Lucy Thurber directs actors in “Ashville,” the latest of her Hill Town Plays, a collection of five dramas that center on her years growing up in Western Mass.

NEW YORK — For as long as Lucy Thurber can remember, she’s been running. Raised in a sometimes tumultuous household in Western Massachusetts by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, Thurber has long been gripped by the desperate feeling of being in perpetual survival mode, despite the stable adult life she carved out for herself.

“Until fairly recently, I have always felt like this life was borrowed, that it was temporary and could all be taken away in an instant,” says the 43-year-old playwright, during a recent interview at a West Village cafe. “It was only in the last two or three years that it occurred to me that I could stop running — that I wasn’t going to wake up one morning and find myself back somewhere in a house without a roof or living inside a bus or not being able to pay the bills or being hungry or freezing or getting hit.”

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Thurber’s sometimes harrowing early years and the people she befriended in Western Massachusetts formed the inspiration for the Hill Town Plays, a cycle of five of Thurber’s dramas that are running concurrently at four different venues in the West Village, including Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which is overseeing the festival. The plays, which include “Scarcity,” “Where We’re Born,” “Killers and Other Family,” “Stay,” and the world premiere of “Ashville,” opened Thursday after weeks of previews and run through Sept. 28.

Precarious circumstances were a fixture of Thurber’s life from an early age. Her free-spirited mother moved the family frequently, but struggled to pay the bills and provide food. When Thurber was 9, they settled permanently in Western Massachusetts, first in the rural town of Huntington and later in Northampton.

In the impoverished world where she grew up, alcohol and drug use were rampant and teenage pregnancy was common. Still, Western Massachusetts is a place that Thurber holds deep in her heart. It’s where she learned about loyalty, family, pride, and the balm of humor. It’s where she met friends whom she loves deeply and thinks about to this day.

The Hill Town Plays look at the culture of poverty in America through the lens of one girl’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. The young woman’s name and some details about her differ from play to play, but Thurber says she was conceived as the same person.

Thurber often didn’t feel understood anywhere. She earned scholarships, first to a private day school near Northampton, then to an alternative high school in Maine, where her mostly wealthy classmates went on extravagant vacations and drove BMWs. She also knew that she was gay, but came from a world where she was expected to get married and have babies.

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Still, Thurber says, no matter how far we may stray from our roots, we are always connected to our past.

Thurber’s past was also marked in part by violence, both physical and emotional, something that she struggled to come to grips with.

“There’s a culture of violence that usually comes when you have lack of opportunity, lack of work, lack of money, lack of educational opportunities,” she says. That violence can be traced to “feelings of shame or frustration or powerlessness that comes with lack, that comes with scarcity.”

For many years, Thurber had this recurring dread that she would one day open the door to her apartment and her past would come flooding back in — that “all of the things that I had been unable to deal with, both in my own mind and in my past in some way, would be there,” she says.

She wrote “Killers and Other Family” as a way to face that fear. In the play, Elizabeth is living in New York, studiously trying to finish her dissertation. With a knock on her door, the life she’s built with her partner, Claire, threatens to come crashing down with the unexpected arrival of her brother, Jeff, and their childhood friend, Danny, with whom she shares a charged connection and a traumatic past. It’s soon revealed that Jeff and Danny are on the lam after one of them commits a violent crime, and they draw “Lizzie” back into their dysfunctional cycle of desperation, recrimination, violence, and remorse.

“I wanted to write a play that was specifically about identity and what violence does to identity,” says Thurber. “Being constantly in survival mode doesn’t allow for the development of language. When you don’t have that, you have the cultural language of American poverty: drinking, drugs, violence, and loyalty, among other things.”

David Van Asselt, Rattlestick artistic director, spearheaded the Thurber retrospective. He first discovered her in the late ’90s when he picked up “Killers and Other Family” from a pile of manuscripts. He first produced that play in 2001 and then restaged a dramatically rewritten version of it in 2009. Since then, he’s become an ardent champion of her work. (Thurber has yet to be produced in any Boston area theaters.)

Van Asselt believes Thurber turned to writing to come to terms with who she was and the world she had grown up in. “And I appreciated her ability to talk about this world without any kind of pity toward the characters. She doesn’t strive to create absolute villains and absolute good people. They’re just people.”

Some audiences may be tempted to call the people in Thurber’s plays white trash — and a few critics have done exactly that. But you won’t find her using that sobriquet. Thurber has the late playwright August Wilson to thank for that shift in her perspective. She first met Wilson in her early 20s when she was working as a theater electrician at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference.

At the end of the summer season, she introduced herself to Wilson and told him she was a writer. When he asked what she wrote about, she replied the poor white trash that she grew up with. He advised her, “You must never use anybody else’s language to define you or the people where you come from. Because that language isn’t who they are.”

He asked her about the people that she and her peers had looked up to.

“I said, ‘Someone who could drink two or three cases of beer and still stand up. Someone who could run from the cops and never get caught,’ ” she recalls.

“And he said, ‘I bet the people that you grew up around told stories. Because if you come from these kinds of places, you tell each other stories. That’s one of the ways in which you know that you exist.’ ”

After that conversation, she wrote what is still the first scene of “Where We’re Born.”

“I hadn’t realized the degree to which I’d internalized the exterior language that society uses to talk about that world and how little I had been able to define the culture that I was coming from and my own experience in my own words. That is really why I wrote these plays.”

Wilson’s encouragement gave her the confidence to become a playwright, to pursue a dream she had dreamed since she was a little girl playing a fairy in “The Tempest” at an outdoor community theater and Peter Pan in grade school.

“I fell in love with theater as a small child, and I did have that thing of, ‘This is magic and make-believe and I want to spend my life doing this.’ It was the thing that came and saved me. It was the miracle from above.”

Chris Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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