‘I’m a storyteller,” says Catherine O’Neill, who also happens to be a Dorchester native, political veteran, journalist, fund-raiser, and now, playwright. “I have been since I was in eighth grade and my brother gave me one of those little diaries with the key.”
O’Neill’s new play, “The Fence,” which begins performances Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion, is rooted in her Dorchester upbringing while it reaches out to explore ideas about identity.
Unlike her 2011 political drama, “Murph” (produced by the fringe company Argos Productions), “The Fence” follows a trio of ordinary Dorchester couples: an older pair of Irish immigrants, their socially ambitious son and his wife, and the son’s well-to-do neighbor and her husband. Each couple has been challenged by events that they didn’t expect and haven’t been able to resolve. A fence, which was installed to separate people, becomes a catalyst to bring them together instead.
O’Neill says she always starts with characters. “I come from a family of nine,” she says, counting her parents and six brothers. “I’ve always been surrounded by colorful people. My parents emigrated from Ireland and straddled both worlds, and my community is very close-knit.”
O’Neill’s ear for good stories and deep knowledge of her community were assets in a career that included work as a community and government relations director at a local real estate development company, a political fund-raiser for a host of Democratic candidates, work as the Dorchester coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, a long-running column in the Dorchester Reporter, a stint as the host of the local cable talk show “The Boston Connection,” and a 2013 run for Boston City Council.
When a job layoff at the real estate company gave her the opportunity to focus on writing, O’Neill says she was ready. “I went for my MFA at Lesley University, and by the time I graduated, I had commitments to produce the first play I ever wrote.”
“Murph” led to interest in “The Fence,” with director Christopher James Webb approaching her about a possible production. Webb’s wife, actress Jessica Webb, participated in a reading of an early version of the script at Lesley and suggested he read it.
“What I love about this play,” says Christopher James Webb, “is that it seems to be a familiar story and then, because of the relationships involved, deepens into something much more complicated and very touching.”
In a rehearsal room last week, actors Jeffrey B. Phillips as the Old Man and Renee Miller as the Neighbor work through a scene, stopping and starting as they find the most powerful moments of connection between their two characters. This particular scene takes place in the aftermath of a near-tragedy, where they found themselves as unlikely allies.
“The story is based on a true incident when my father built a fence for my brother,” says O’Neill. “It was a gift that my father had given, but it was an ugly old chain link fence, and my brother had to ask him to take it down because it looked awful and the neighbors were upset. It incorporates all that tension between an immigrant and the next generation.”
That moment when a son rejects his father’s gift was the pivotal emotional point of the story for O’Neill, but as she fleshed out the play, other characters came to the forefront.
“When you get into the room with actors and a director and designers,” O’Neill says, “they open up possibilities that I didn’t see when I was typing away.”
“Catherine started with a relationship between a father and his son,” says Webb, “but her dialogue is so natural, and her characters so believable, the play expands into a universal story about three couples trying to figure out who they are, who they thought they were, and who they want to be.”
O’Neill, who has gone back to a day job as a real estate consultant, says she has been thrilled by the response to her work. And what about her political aspirations? O’Neill finished just out of the running in the 2013 City Council primary race for an at-large seat, but rather than whet her appetite for another run, she says with a grin: “That experience certainly provided me with a lot more stories.”
A boon for playwrights
Playwrights Steven Bogart, Gregory Hischak, John Kuntz, and Stefan Lanfer have each received a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for Dramatic Writing, while Liz Duffy Adams, Patrick Gabridge, Tom Grady, R.D. Murphy, and Cecilia Raker have each received $1,000. Keep an eye out for the plays that will emerge from these grants.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.