Early last summer, Tracy and Kevin Keegan were walking in Wellfleet center when Kevin Keegan recognized Dan Lombardo, the artistic director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, behind the window of the company’s Main Street box office. They struck up a conversation.
“And he said, ‘My daughter was a playwright.’ And I said, ‘Tell me about her,’” Lombardo recalled. “And suddenly it hit me this was Marina Keegan’s father.”
Marina Keegan, a Wayland native, had just graduated from Yale University and accepted a job at The New Yorker when she died in a car crash in Dennis last year, on the way to her family’s summer home in Wellfleet. She was 22.
Keegan’s writing — including a Yale Daily News essay titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which led to a piece for The New York Times DealBook blog — had already attracted enough attention that her death made headlines: in the Globe, in the Times, and across the country.
Like seemingly everyone else in town, Lombardo had heard about the accident, and the chance meeting with her parents took him by surprise. But the possibilities were obvious. Later in the summer, the Keegans loaned Lombardo a DVD of “Independents,” a big-cast musical whose book Marina had written that debuted at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. They also sent him the script for her play “Utility Monster.” He was eager to read it, but also a little concerned. What if, after all that, it wasn’t quite good enough? He quickly decided it was.
“Marina’s fluidity with dialogue and the way she builds characters, immediately you knew these were authentic people on the stage,” Lombardo said. “There were no stereotypes, no cliches, no throwaway lines. It’s beautifully evocative writing, and you wanted to know what was going to happen to these characters.”
Now her family and others will gather this weekend for the opening of “Utility Monster,” which begins performances Thursday, with Lombardo directing. The official opening is Saturday night. Sunday is the first anniversary of Keegan’s death.
The timing of the premiere at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater wasn’t what the family expected, said her father, but now they’re glad. “The nice part is that we’re going to be surrounded by family and friends who are going to be coming up to the Cape for the opening, and in many ways that should be comforting,” he said.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my daughter than to share her words with the world,” said her mother.
Even so, her family and friends are determined that the play’s back story not overshadow the work.
“She was a fantastic kid. Very difficult, very feisty, very fierce, very funny, very bright,” said playwright Deb Margolin, an associate professor in Yale’s theater studies program who taught Keegan and became a mentor to her. “Nasty loss. A nasty and terrible loss.”
But Margolin and others say Keegan would want the attention focused on her play and the ideas it grapples with, not the emotions stirred by her death.
“Utility Monster” is the story of two New York City 15-year-olds straddling the gulf between idealism and reality. Everything changes for Claude (Ryan Rudewicz) when he discovers that, for the price of his Taco Bell meal, he could provide life-saving nutrition for a child in Africa. He begins to see everything through the philosophy of utilitarianism, which he defines as “when you start thinking about everything in terms of how many starving African children you can save.”
The notion appeals to Sadie (Lily Flores), whose privileged life has been shaken by the death of her father, a well-known painter, and her mother’s subsequent cancer diagnosis. But how far will these two teenagers take their fund-raising campaign? Sadie’s mother (Laura Latreille), her stoner older brother (Ari Lew), and her uncle (Marc Carver) will be dragged into the mess they create — all of it inside Keegan’s exploration of altruism and its complications.
“She said she never met anyone her age who hasn’t agonized about what to do with one’s life,” Tracy Keegan said. “‘Utility Monster’ raises the question of responsibility, asking if anything that doesn’t directly benefit people who need help is worth doing. Whether you could possibly value a painting more than a human life. And therefore, by extension, she would say, it also looks at the value of theater itself.”
That sort of interrogation was part of the way Keegan operated, Margolin said. “What struck me most about this kid was she really wanted people to be called to account for their choices and their ethics,” she said.
Keegan had revised the script over a couple of years, through Margolin’s class, a student production at Yale, and staged readings. A St. Thomas getaway with her mother turned into a rewrite marathon.
“She was able to hone it and sculpt it and get her message out in the way she wanted,” Tracy Keegan said. “It’s a complete thought for her, which is a great thing.”