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At Merrimack Rep, a spring awakening followed by an upbeat fall forecast

‘A Woman of the World’ is the theater’s second virtual production this month as it prepares for an autumn reopening

Courtney Sale directs a rehearsal for Merrimack Repertory Theatre's  "A Woman of the World," starring Denise Cormier as Mabel Loomis Todd.
Courtney Sale directs a rehearsal for Merrimack Repertory Theatre's "A Woman of the World," starring Denise Cormier as Mabel Loomis Todd.Kathy Wittman

Last March, Courtney Sale left the Seattle Children’s Theatre to take the reins of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, just in time for everything to shut down.

“We spent last spring and summer scenario spinning,” says Sale. “It was impossible to keep up with all the changes.”

But from a programming perspective, Sale says she and her Lowell-based team were able take a step back from the hustle of planning and producing seven shows a season to commission new works and “make sure writers are still writing.”

“We are planning to reopen in the fall in some capacity,” she says, noting that the season will be announced in June, “and in the meantime, we wanted to think carefully about what we want to talk about. We wanted to lean into dynamic storytelling, one that draws on imaginative energies and abilities to conjure a world.”

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Merrimack Rep returned to programming this spring with filmed versions of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood,” which featured Maisha McQueen portraying residents of Ferguson, Mo., and their determination to find hope after the police shooting of Michael Brown, and “A Woman of the World,” by Rebecca Gilman, which will be available for viewing May 15-30 (www.mrt.org, $29 or $39 per household).

“I was eager to make sure these were plays that are filmed, experienced as if you sat in the theater as close as you can get,” says Sale. “But the elements of film offered some extra tools, especially for the transitions in ‘Until the Flood,’” which was directed by Emerson College artist-in-residence Timothy Douglas. “We are creating a new hybrid.”

“The filmed version of the play also allows us to get the work out of the literal halls and walls and introduce it in places of comfort,” Sale says. “Working with Lowell High School to reach students there strengthened our relationship with them. The play is the beginning of a conversation, and when there was some concern about the reaction, we created opportunities to broaden the audience so that everyone felt safe and included.”

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“A Woman of the World,” which Sale is directing, is an opportunity to work with a script by a playwright she’s long admired. Gilman wrote “Spinning Into Butter,” “Boy Gets Girl,” and “Blue Surge,” among others, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Glory of Living.”

“Rebecca Gilman has this extraordinary ability to craft an A story and a B story that sometimes work in contrast to each other,” she says. “In this case, she’s created a wonderful misdirection, humanizing a real-life character who was acclaimed for introducing Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the world and demonized as someone who profited off of someone else’s work.”

“A Woman of the World” focuses on Mabel Loomis Todd, who was the first to edit and publish Dickinson’s poetry. Although she never met the poet, she had corresponded with her, and had a long affair with the poet’s married older brother Austin Dickinson. Todd was considered an unapologetic free spirit, a popular hostess and raconteur who traveled up and down the East Coast on lecture tours. The play is framed as one of those lectures.

Denise Cormier in rehearsal for "A Woman of the World."
Denise Cormier in rehearsal for "A Woman of the World."Kathy Wittman

“Although on the surface, the play is about a woman who champions literature by another woman, the heart of the play is the love story between Mabel and Austin,” Sale says. “In Mabel’s mind, her connection to the family runs really deep because she and Austin were passionately in love with each other,” despite the fact that both were married to other people.

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Finding the right actress was a challenge, Sale says. “I hadn’t worked with Denise Cormier, but her name kept coming up,” she says. “When she read the part, she unlocked this woman in a way that surprised me. Denise had a wonderful curiosity about Mabel and found a warmth in all the layers Rebecca has written on the page.”

While the connection to a New England writer drew her to “A Woman of the World,” Sale says she was surprised by the parallels to lockdown life in the play, including the isolation of the poet shuttered in her house away from everyone, and the moment when Mabel, denied access to her dying lover Austin, must grieve from afar.

Cooking up a comedy

Throughout the pandemic, actor-playwright-stand-up comedian Joel Perez found himself calling his mom to talk him through a recipe.

“It was a great opportunity to catch up and hear stories while making something good to eat,” says Perez, who lives in New York City while his family is in Lawrence.

Perez, who has been friends with playwright Melinda Lopez since he appeared in a reading of “Becoming Cuba,” says they began shaping a story that would become “Black Beans Project,” available for viewing May 11-30 online at the Huntington Theatre Company (www.huntingtontheatre.org, pay-what-you-can, $25 suggested per household).

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“The act of cooking requires specific activities, like chopping and stirring, and then there’s a lull where there’s space to talk,” says Perez. “We thought that was an interesting container to hold a story.”

The pair crafted a story about siblings who are sharing a memory of a favorite dish their mom made as they cope with her loss in the midst of COVID. As they cook together, the brother (Perez) tempts his sister (Lopez) into joining him on an adventure to celebrate their mother’s life.

“The fun of writing this play together is that we can’t tell where one person began and the other ended,” he says.

In addition to writing and performing in their play, Lopez and Perez timed everything so that viewers can cook along with them. They chose a black beans recipe that could be prepared, cooked, and eaten within an hour (www.huntingtontheatre.org/blackbeans-recipe).

“My family is from Puerto Rico, while Melinda is Cuban,” he says. “Black bean recipes aren’t as much of a thing in my family as they are in hers, so the recipe is all her.”

While he is eager to get back on stage in front of live audiences, Perez says “Black Beans” is a way to bring people together, with the added bonus of enjoying a delicious meal together.

360 degrees of theater

The Wilbury Theatre Group’s “Whose Name Was Writ in Water” (through May 15) imagines a conversation between artist Becci Davis and her enslaved great-great-grandmother around a rite of passage for her teenage son.

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Davis, an interdisciplinary artist, uses video, among other tools, to explore her story. The production can be viewed in a virtual reality 360-degree performance with the additional purchase of either a premium virtual headset or a basic cardboard-style model. While the additional equipment is not necessary, it does enhance the performance (www.thewilburygroup.org, pay-what-you-can, plus the cost for a headset, if desired).