“We All Fall Down" explores the unbearable aspects of family dynamics, says playwright Lila Rose Kaplan.
“At the same time,” Kaplan says, “it’s a celebration of our longing for family connections and ritual.”
“We All Fall Down,” having its world premiere in a Huntington Theatre Company production at the Calderwood Pavilion starting Friday, focuses on the Stein family, who are reuniting for a Seder, celebrated through the sharing of a meal during Passover. The catch? The family has never celebrated Passover or prepared a Seder before.
“Memory is so important in families, and in Judaism,” says Kaplan, “and yet, we are at a moment when religion is no longer the organizing principle in families or society. It was interesting to me to use ideas of faith and hope to connect with the people around us.”
Many of Kaplan’s plays are described as dark comedies (“Home of the Brave,” “The Magician’s Daughter”) because they explore family dynamics with an awareness of how goofy and ridiculous people can be while also exposing their vulnerabilities.
“It’s exciting to tell a story about people who collide, make mistakes, get hurt, but keep trying to make the best of it,” says Kaplan, a Huntington playwriting fellow who lives in Somerville.
The diners at the Stein family’s first Seder include Saul, a recently retired history professor; his wife, Linda, a psychologist with a new book called “Parenting Difficult Children”; their two daughters, Ariel, who lives at home and is currently training to be a yoga instructor, and Sammi, a history teacher who lives with her boyfriend across the country in California; Saul’s sister Nan, who has been friends with Linda since college; Ester, Linda’s eager assistant; and Beverly, a nosy former neighbor.
Linda, the matriarch, drives the action, but director Melia Bensussen says that’s only the first layer of the script. What she loves about “We All Fall Down” is its female point of view.
“There are a lot of plays written by angry sons,” Bensussen says, “and our view of mothers in literature is often dictated by those voices. Lila Rose’s genius is understanding the particulars of family interactions that resonate across cultures. The story is about a very Jewish family celebration, and yet it’s about every family that clashes, connects, and muddles through.”
Bensussen, who has been working with Kaplan through several workshop productions, calls herself the playwright’s dybbuk.
“My job as a director of a new play is to introduce the playwright to what they’ve made,” she says with a laugh. “Theater is a fundamentally collaborative art, and it’s exciting when actors and designers are in the room with the playwright and everyone starts to feel a sense of ownership of the story and the world.”
Kaplan, who started her career in dance, says seeing actors fit her characters to their bodies opens new possibilities in her writing.
“Actors help to simplify the storytelling, and focus on what’s important,” she says. “Now, I think I’ve given everyone a ride to go on.”
A serving of ’Smoked Oysters'
Another local playwright, Mary M. McCullough, will see the world premiere of her family drama, “Smoked Oysters,” Jan. 20-22 at Greater Egleston Community High School (80 School St.), in a production by TC Squared Theatre Company.
“Several years ago,” says McCullough, “I heard, in my mind, a man and his wife having a feisty conversation about why the husband would not leave the house. They were bickering like a couple who had been married a long time. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on, but the result is ‘Smoked Oysters.’ ”
The title refers to the husband’s craving for smoked oysters, and his request that his wife get some from the supermarket. Specific details like that make McCullough’s characters and dialogue disarmingly natural and familiar.
The drama unfolds as a couple is about to begin a new phase of their life together after the husband, Ulysses, retires from his university position as a professor of black history. He and his wife, Arnetta, are planning to do all the things they never had time for while they were working. But as they prepare to travel to Kenya for a safari, life takes an unexpected turn.
“I put the script away for several years, and then, when I had a chance to participate in the TC Squared playwriting lab, I pulled it out again," McCullough says.
TC Squared mentors Boston-based artists from diverse backgrounds and develops new work through their labs, staged readings, and performances. “Smoked Oysters” is the second play the company has developed and produced as a full production. It’s directed by Deen Rawlins (“Wig Out!”). (Tickets $5-$15, www.eventbrite.com.)
McCullough’s other plays have been featured in Boston’s African American Theater Festivals, Slam-Boston, ACT-Roxbury Dramatic Shoutouts, Theater Co-Op of Somerville, and toured by The Streetfeet Women.
“My work has always focused on women and women’s lives,” she says.
Onward and upward
Obehi Janice, who starred in Company One Theatre’s production of “We’re Gonna Die!” and her own “Fufu and Oreos,” has been named one of the resident artists at Colt Coeur, a Brooklyn-based theater company now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Janice joins fellow playwright Emma Goidel and directors Tara Elliott, J. Mehr Kaur, and Portia Krieger for a year of artistic, administrative, and financial support. In addition to her work as a playwright, actor, and comedian, Janice is on the writing staff of Hulu’s “Castle Rock.”
WE ALL FALL DOWN
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Jan. 10-Feb. 15. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2019-2020