A few years ago, Ginger Lazarus started to write a lesbian version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and soon decided that her heroine had been kicked out of the Army for coming out. Lazarus normally writes comedies, but researching life under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy took her into darker territory involving harassment, violence, and worse.
“Going for the reality and intensity of it was like pulling off a mask and getting at the horrible truth of this situation,” Lazarus says. “It was hard.”
In Edmond Rostand’s play, Cyrano feels his outsize nose makes him unlovable, so he uses his way with words to help the inarticulate young soldier Christian woo Roxane, the woman they both love. The story has been adapted in many ways, often as romantic comedy.
In Lazarus’s version, called “Burning,” the Cyrano figure is Cy Burns, a lesbian former Army sergeant, gruff and solitary, who now runs a general store in an isolated hamlet near an Army base. She helps tongue-tied Corporal Cole woo Rose, an apparently straight civilian woman they both love.
Cy is also a blogger, bravely turning a spotlight on sexual abuse and homophobia in the ranks, and tragic secrets from her own time in uniform eventually come back to haunt her.
“Burning” runs through Oct. 20 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.
“I think it’s really important that these stories are told, because of what some of these human beings, these soldiers, had to go through,” says Mal Malme, who plays Cy with a fierce commitment. “I hope this piece honors that.”
Around 2010, Lazarus and a friend, playwright Jess Martin of Boston’s Queer Soup Theater, decided to write matching one-act plays that took a gay angle on classic sources. The resulting short version of “Burning” appeared in an evening of staged readings organized by Queer Soup. But to Lazarus it was clear that her idea “had more going on than could be told in an hour.”
Fortunately, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre artistic director Kate Snodgrass was on hand for the reading and offered to produce a full-length version if Lazarus wrote one.
“It was a new kind of play for me, and the subject matter is really intense,” Lazarus says. “I’m glad I had that incentive, because I might have run away from [the story] if I didn’t.”
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, repealed in 2011, said that gays and lesbians could serve in the US military as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. Gays and lesbians whose sexuality was discovered were vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape. Sometimes the stories ended in suicide or violence against the victims, with the truth covered up, Lazarus says.
“I know people who were gay and in the military and dealt with trauma [because of it], and they’re my heroes,” says Malme. “They managed to do something I can’t even fathom doing. Not only having to hide who you are — I’ve been closeted in my life — but hiding who you are in an environment where if you’re not [hidden] you can be physically harmed, killed, raped. That kind of state of mind is unfathomable.”
After three years of readings and workshops and lots of conversation with Lazarus, the actress has formed a deep connection to the character.
“She’s a troubled hero,” Malme says of Cy. “She’s human, she’s complex. She’s lived a life in which she did not have a lot of choices based on her growing up, and she was looking for a place to fit in, which I think a lot of LGBT people are looking for. Cy chose the military because it was one of the only choices she had. And she managed to find a family in the military she didn’t have before. Of course, the compromise was she couldn’t be completely herself. And she has chosen to compartmentalize that.
“It worked and she was seen as a very promising, professional, going-somewhere soldier and officer until things happened and she had to make some different choices,” Malme says.
“Burning” director Steven Bogart is steering a cast that also includes Ian Michaels as Cole, Jessica Webb as Rose, Zachary Clarence as Cy’s helper at the store, and Steven Barkhimer as a tough colonel from Cy’s past.
“I had this revelation about Cy today, which is that the whole idea of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has been internalized by her. She’s not telling in the play, she’s holding this secret,” says Bogart. “Even though the policy has been repealed, I think the psychology is still in our culture, and it’s pretty hard on a lot of people.”
Bogart, a former Lexington High School theater teacher, was good friends with Lazarus’s drama teacher at Brookline High, the late Iain Ryrie, who “talked about him all the time,” Lazarus says. She and Bogart never met, though, till a playwriting conference in Alaska a few years ago. They’ve kept in touch since, and Bogart’s name came up when Lazarus and Snodgrass were talking about possible directors for “Burning.”
Among their other connections is that Ryrie wrote and directed a post-apocalyptic version of “Cyrano” at Brookline High — “like a ‘Road Warrior’ version,” Bogart says — that Lazarus saw when she was a student. Bogart also directed it with his Lexington students a couple of times. Now they’re collaborating on a very different version of Cyrano.
“We were talking about it last night, how Iain is sort of present in our collaboration,” Lazarus says, “and wishing he could see it.”