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theater

Questions of belonging reverberate on local stages

Matt Bausone (left) and Eric Folks in “columbinus,’’ a production of the Chicago-based American Theater Company to be presented by ArtsEmerson Sept. 17-29.

Michael Brosilow

Matt Bausone (left) and Eric Folks in “columbinus,’’ a production of the Chicago-based American Theater Company to be presented by ArtsEmerson Sept. 17-29.

Three years ago, Kirsten Greenidge’s “Thanksgiving’’ was the high point of “Grimm,’’ Company One’s evening of short plays by seven local writers adapted from tales by the Brothers Grimm.

During “Thanksgiving,’’ as three women from the same hometown pondered the paths their lives had taken, they spoke of an individualistic high school classmate named Fran Giosa, who had apparently been a social outcast. Afterward, Greenidge couldn’t get Fran, the other women, or that town out of her mind.

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So she expanded “Thanksgiving’’ into a full-length drama. Titled “Splendor’’ and slated to premiere at Company One Oct. 18-Nov. 16, Greenidge’s play tells a story about belonging and not belonging — a theme that will be thrashed out on numerous Boston-area stages this fall.

The episodic “Splendor,’’ which spans the years 1965 to 2012, ranges across the intersecting lives of 10 residents of a working-class suburb of Boston, including Fran, the daughter of a white mother and a black father.

“ ‘Splendor’ became for me a way to explore that who’s in, who’s out, and why,’’ Greenidge said in a telephone interview. “I’m intensely interested in race, but when you add other things, it can be a little more difficult to figure out who’s in, who’s out.’’

As she delved deeper into the town and its inhabitants, the playwright said, the experience was akin to looking through a prism: “You keep holding it up to the sun and you see different angles. It’s not just race, it’s not just class, it’s not just gender: It’s all these things together.’’

Greenidge, who lives in Waltham, has demonstrated exceptional acuity in dramatizing those issues in plays like “The Luck of the Irish,’’ which premiered last year at Huntington Theatre Company, and “Bossa Nova,’’ performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010.

In “Splendor,’’ Fran has returned from Chestnut Hill to her hometown after her marriage to a wealthy African-American man falls apart. She needs to decide whether the place where she grew up poor and ostracized can now be home to her and her young daughter, and whether the one solid friendship she had during her youth is worth rekindling. (She also has to map out a plan for dealing with her aggressively outspoken mother, who still lives in the town even while seeming to despise it.) Broadly speaking, Fran confronts a choice about who she is going to be.

Questions of family and belonging, inclusion and exclusion, also lie at the heart of Nina Raine’s “Tribes,’’ scheduled for Sept. 13-Oct. 12 at SpeakEasy Stage Company.

“Tribes’’ revolves around a young deaf man named Billy who, though adept at reading lips, has never learned sign language. Neither have his parents, his brother, or his sister. “We didn’t want to make you part of a minority world,’ is how his father explains it. But the upshot is that Billy feels like an outsider, left out of dinner-table conversations, a mere onlooker in his own family.

Then Billy enters into a romance with Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, and she teaches him how to sign while also bringing him into contact with others in the deaf community. “I fit. I belong with them,’’ Billy tells his family, pointedly saying it in sign language, translated by Sylvia. Newly independent, Billy asserts that he will no longer be their “mascot,’’ and spells out his non-negotiable terms: Learn to sign or he’ll break off communications with them. As translated by Sylvia: “He says . . . he’s spent his life trying to understand you, and now he thinks you should try to understand him.’’

The matter of inclusion-vs.-exclusion is viewed through the bleakest prism imaginable in “columbinus.’’ Inspired by the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., “columbinus’’ is a production of the Chicago-based American Theater Company to be presented by ArtsEmerson Sept. 17-29.

Kirsten Greenidge expanded her short play “Thanksgiving” into a full-length drama titled “Splendor,” which is slated to premiere at Company One Oct. 18-Nov. 16.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Kirsten Greenidge expanded her short play “Thanksgiving” into a full-length drama titled “Splendor,” which is slated to premiere at Company One Oct. 18-Nov. 16.

Written by PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam, “columbinus’’ builds a portrait of adolescent disconnection and alienation, partly by depicting a fictional high school that includes characters like “Freak,’’ “Loner,’’ and “Jock,’’ and partly via oral history, drawn from interviews with survivors and parents in the aftermath of the tragedy. The massacre itself is also depicted in unsparing detail.

In a much lighter vein is “La Cage aux Folles,’’ scheduled for Sept. 24-Oct. 6 at North Shore Music Theatre. In a familiar but still resonant story line, a drag performer named Albin (stage name: Zaza) suddenly finds himself pushed to the sidelines of his own family. The young man whom Albin lovingly helped to raise — along with his longtime lover, Georges, the lad’s father — is getting married to the daughter of a right-wing demagogue. When the young woman’s parents come to visit, Albin is forced to disguise who he really is. But Albin ultimately reclaims his true identity, in dramatic fashion.

There’s certainly no happy ending for the protagonist of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,’’ which opened this weekend and runs through Sept. 29 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. The extremely deformed John Merrick is the ultimate outsider, an object of horror and disgust in late-19th-century London. “His terror of us all comes from having been held at arm’s length from society,’’ says an expert on anatomy who brings Merrick to a hospital for ongoing study.

But it is not that expert but rather Mrs. Kendal, an actress, with whom Merrick forms a bond. Why? Because Mrs. Kendal treats him not as a freak, and not as a specimen, but as a person, as one who belongs to the human community.

More information:

TRIBES

Sept. 13-Oct. 12. SpeakEasy Stage Company. Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com

COLUMBINUS

Sept. 17-29. Production by American Theater Company. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

Sept. 24-Oct. 6. North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly.

978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org

SPLENDOR Oct. 18-Nov. 16. Company One. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts.

617-933-8600, www.companyone.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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