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Theater & art

Stewart brings humor, heartbreak to ‘Rich Girl’

Sasha Castroverde and Joe Short play Claudine and Henry, the rich girl and struggling artist of the play “Rich Girl.”

NERYS POWELL

Sasha Castroverde and Joe Short play Claudine and Henry, the rich girl and struggling artist of the play “Rich Girl.”

Eve is a financial guru in the Suze Orman mold, tough when she has to be to give you the straight dope on taking care of your money. Her daughter Claudine, clumsy and socially awkward, works for her foundation but lives in her shadow. Then Claudine meets Henry, a theater artist and former high school classmate who hits her up unsuccessfully for some of that foundation dough — but suddenly Henry and Claudine are in love.

Well, Claudine is anyway. Mother has big doubts about Henry and is determined to put him to the test.

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That’s the setup for “Rich Girl,” Victoria Stewart’s funny and heartbreaking tale of financial and emotional savings and withholding, running Friday through April 26 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

“I love Eve,” says actress Amelia Broome, who plays her. “Eve is, as she calls it herself, the truth teller. She tells it like it is, no frills, no apology. I admire that so much in her, just straight talk the way she sees it. Especially for women in the world, that’s not always possible, you know?”

But she’s a difficult woman, isn’t she? “Ya think?” Broome says. There are consequences when Eve’s candor and her sharp tongue turn to the topic of her daughter’s life. Eve has her reasons, Broome notes, for wanting to protect Claudine from the kind of heartbreak she has known. Their interaction is at times “brutal and loving, but it doesn’t look like it’s loving on the surface,” says Broome, previously seen at the Lyric in “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“There have been moments, just remembering images from my relationship with my own mother and the joys of that, and the sadnesses of times when we just didn’t see eye to eye, so much that we hurt each other,” Broome says. “I don’t mind saying that some of us have shed a tear or two in rehearsal as these issues have come up.”

Sasha Castroverde, who appeared in the Lyric’s “Water by the Spoonful,” plays Claudine, and Joe Short makes his Lyric debut as Henry. Celeste Oliva, a hit at the Lyric in “Chinglish” and “Becky’s New Car,” rounds out the cast as Maggie, Eve’s assistant and Claudine’s confidante.

For playwright Stewart, inspiration was as close as cable TV. “I have these two other plays that have very strong, complicated women, ‘Live Girls’ and ‘Hardball,’ and my friend was like, ‘You should write a third play with a difficult woman at the center, and that can be your Bitch Trilogy!’ ” she says, laughing.

A couple of weeks later, she says, “I watched a TV show with Suze Orman, and she has this interesting back story where she’d saved all this money and gave it to an investment banker and he lost it all, and that made her go, ‘I have to take charge of my own finances.’ And I was telling my friend the story about Suze Orman, and he’s like, ‘That’s it!’ And I took the challenge.”

Most people will recognize the Orman influence when Eve steps out by herself to exhort her audience to get prenuptial agreements and have an emergency fund that will support them for eight months. The play’s other inspiration may not be as readily identifiable at first: Henry James.

Stewart is a serious fan of the novelist and has written an adaptation of “The Bostonians.” She says “Rich Girl” is a reaction to his “Washington Square” and its later stage and film adaptation, “The Heiress.”

“He writes pretty terrific female characters,” Stewart says. “He on one hand understands that there are societal issues that are keeping them down, but also he doesn’t let them off the hook. I went to a women’s college and read all of these feminist novels, where it’s all society, [the women have] no agency. James is really terrific in that his characters don’t necessarily make the best choices, and as a reader you’re going, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ ”

She went straight from Barnard College to an internship at the American Repertory Theater, where she worked as an assistant stage manager for most of the 1990s. Playwriting came to her in a rather James ian way. She was touring Europe as a stage manager for a Peter Sellars opera when she got a fax from her mother telling her of a five-figure inheritance. Her mother warned her to watch out for fortune hunters, noting the parallel to the story in James’s “The Portrait of a Lady.” Stewart ended up using the money to go to grad school for playwriting.

Playwright Victoria Stewart’s “Hardball” — like “Rich Girl,” it focuses on strong women — has been optioned for a movie.

Playwright Victoria Stewart’s “Hardball” — like “Rich Girl,” it focuses on strong women — has been optioned for a movie.

Stewart grew up on the North Shore, and lives now in Glendale, Calif., where she’s working on writing for television as well as plays. “Hardball” has been optioned for the movies, and she’s currently in discussions with studios about a TV pilot she wrote on spec. Screenwriting requires just as much work and hustle as playwriting, she says, but you hope it pays better in the end.

Glendale, she said, is a good place to live, but don’t confuse it with the glamorous Hollywood depicted on TV: “It’s a lot easier to get to the beach in Beverly Farms.”

Being a working playwright has also left her with more than a little sympathy for the struggling Henry in “Rich Girl.”

“To be an artist, you actually work a couple of jobs to pay for your art, usually, but there are people who think you’re not making a lot of money, so therefore it’s not worthwhile,” she says. “I’ve had conversations with complete strangers where they basically tell me I’m not a writer because they don’t know who I am.”

To some extent, “Rich Girl” really does turn on Henry’s intentions, whether they’re honorable or mercenary. “Claudine loves Henry. Does Henry love Claudine? Does mama love Claudine?” Stewart says. “Hopefully when the audience goes away, they will be talking about those questions.”

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