In his great poem “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Robert Hass mordantly observes that: “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
Everyone in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Project Resilience” has lost someone or something. In this they resemble far too many people who have been battered or shattered by 15 months of a global pandemic.
All set in Boston and written by local dramatists, these six new short plays offer glimpses of characters battling grief, isolation, fear, uncertainty, and emotional paralysis while wrestling with the complicated idea of home — stay or go? — and with the mixed blessings of memory.
Rich themes to be sure, but more tonal variety in exploring them would enable “Project Resilience” to avoid a feeling of overall sameness, even granting the grimness of the past year. Still, there’s something of value in each of these 10-minute monologues, developed as part of “The Boston Project,” SpeakEasy’s new-works initiative.
For me, the play that touches the most resonant chords is the one that is least defined by melancholy and the one that hews most closely to the titular concept of resilience: Adriana RoCale’s “East Boston, Nos Vemos.” Filmed on the East Boston waterfront and directed by Michelle Aguillon, it stars the luminous Graciela Femenia as Nindiría, a Nicaraguan immigrant who makes a living selling tamales.
Nindiría has been twice displaced: first by war in her native land, which exacted a terrible personal cost, and now by the forces of gentrification that are pushing her out of her beloved Eastie. “East Boston became my home when I didn’t have one,” she says. “In East Boston, I never feel alone. Why would I want to say goodbye?”
Femenia convinces you that she won’t, not in any permanent way, and that Boston will be the better for it. With resolve underpinning Nindiría’s anguish, Femenia creates a compellingly full person with a history and an indomitability so legible on her face that even lines that might sound facile — such as “We are what we decide to be, not what happens to us” — carry the weight of lived truth.
A strong sense of place, and of Boston’s troubled racial history, distinguishes Fabiola R. Decius’s quietly moving “If You Begin, Finish It,” directed by Dawn M. Simmons. It features Cheryl D. Singleton as Claire, the sixtysomething head librarian of the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library, who shares reminiscences with an unseen teenage interviewer (a device that comes across as stilted) while seated outside the library or walking the streets.
Claire recounts grim memories of the busing era, of bottles and bricks being thrown at buses carrying her and other Black students to Hyde Park High, and, earlier, of white families moving out when Black families moved into a housing project. But she also summons loving recollections of her high school romance with Crispus Sullivan, nicknamed Sully, and their subsequent married life together, and the reasons — both professional and personal — that the library holds such a special place in her heart.
Their daughter now wants her to come to Chicago, but Claire doesn’t want to go. In words that reflect her love for Sully and perhaps, too, the evolution of the city where she’s lived her whole life, she says: “This is home.”
The pandemic’s hidden toll will emerge as we come out of it — hidden, that is, to all who weren’t experiencing that toll, a fact underscored by Nico Pang’s lyrical, if occasionally overwritten, “My Body Is a Season.” Directed by Des Bennett, it takes place on a hill at Brookline’s Larz Anderson Park, where transmasculine Cameron (played by Jupiter Lê) is eagerly awaiting the surgery that will “help me breathe easier … help everything feel more possible.”
That surgery was delayed during the pandemic because it was deemed non-essential, leaving Cameron “stuck at home with all my dysphoria and anxiety.” Now Cameron can finally leave behind “All the ways I shrunk to keep myself safe” and finally look forward to “All the ways I want to expand.”
The concept and the reality of pain, physical and emotional, are explored in Hortense Gerardo’s “Painless,” directed by Michelle Ambila. Paige Clark portrays Jo, a Filipino-American ophthalmic surgeon making a birthday recording at the Boston Public Garden’s Ether Monument for her mother, an anesthesiologist.
Jo speaks to her mother both as a medical professional and as a daughter, noting at one point that “being able to experience pain is vital to survival.” Her upbeat, joshing demeanor eventually yields to a more somber key, a transition skillfully handled by Clark as it becomes clear that Jo has her own pain to survive.
The timely question of individual vs. mass death surfaces in Magda Romanska’s bleak “Life Is Elsewhere,” directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky and starring Darya Denisova as a seriously ill woman recording a video message to the love of her life. “I don’t want to die without you,” she says, even as the play suggests that is likely to be her fate.
Gigi Watson maintains impressive focus while sharing a park bench with a couple of scene-stealing pooches in Paige Monopoli’s “Mae & Mia,” directed Alex Lonati. Watson portrays Mae, a dog-walker at a life crossroads after living in Boston for eight years. She’s barely getting by on what she makes as a dog-walker; her friends, presumably from college, have moved away; and she lives in “a [lousy] house in Allston with people I don’t know.” (It’s clear Mae’s not originally from here; she refers to Allston as a “borough.”)
“I’m constantly plagued by the question: Why am I still living here?” she says.
Yet as she describes her love for a now-deceased golden retriever named Mia, who had a capacity to “see the good,” Mae starts to evince a similar quality. It’s notable that when she speaks of the authenticity and kindness hidden beneath the outward gruffness and coldness of Bostonians, she uses the words “our” and “we.”
THE BOSTON PROJECT: PROJECT RESILIENCE
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. Streaming through June 30. Tickets $30. www.speakeasystage.com