Solo plays have often served as windows onto a single consciousness, illuminating the thoughts, experiences, and viewpoint of the character who is telling the story.
Some of the best-known solo works are characterized by their insularity, from William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,’’ with Emily Dickinson sifting through the past in the home where she spent her life, to Jonathan Tolins’s “Buyer & Cellar,’’ in which Barbra Streisand’s fictional assistant dramatizes his interactions with the living legend in a shopping mall Streisand had built in the basement of her estate.
But there are also solo plays that look without as well as within, sometimes at the same time. Even when grappling with the most wrenchingly personal subject matter, certain theater artists are intent on framing their individual stories within a wider social context. Such dual-focus dramas yielded some of the best productions seen on area stages in 2016.
One was “Mala,’’ written and performed by Boston playwright-actress Melinda Lopez. Presented in a world premiere at ArtsEmerson, “Mala’’ was inspired by the final year in the life of Lopez’s mother and the death not long before that of her father.
But while enacting a painful chapter from her own story, Lopez took pains in “Mala’’ to incorporate the voices of others who had gone through similar experiences, so the presence of “we’’ and “us’’ was palpable, along with the usual “I’’ and “me’’ we expect in a solo play. That had the effect of broadening “Mala’’ beyond autobiography into a generational portrait of middle-aged children working through psychological fallout from the inevitable but still devastating decline and death of the people who brought them into the world.
Another writer-performer, Stephan Wolfert, brought his “Cry ‘Havoc’!’’ to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. With compelling intensity, Wolfert delineated his own struggles after serving in the first Gulf War, including the time he was on the brink of suicide. But he used his story to amplify a message that went well beyond him: that the nation has a responsibility to help veterans “wired for war’’ in their transitions to civilian life, especially those maimed, physically or psychologically, while fighting in our name over the past two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It could be that the broadening of the lens from private to public in some solo plays reflects a realization that we’re all in this together and solipsism is an intellectual luxury we cannot afford. Of course, Anna Deavere Smith has always seemed to feel that way.
A pioneering playwright-performer of documentary theater, Smith has consistently demonstrated how effective the solo form can be as a means to reckon with the ills that beset the body politic — although, with her, “solo’’ is relative, since she embodies so many characters onstage. Having previously grappled with major social issues in works like “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,’’ her examination of the LA riots, Smith tackled the “school-to-prison pipeline’’ this year in “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education’’ at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater.
But Smith made it clear that those of us sitting in the Loeb Drama Center also had a job to do. She paused “Notes From the Field’’ halfway through the show, whereupon the audience was divided into groups to thrash out the issues — such as racial inequities in public education — that Smith had spotlighted. She was clearly seeking to ignite a spirit of community activism that would extend beyond the final curtain.
To be sure, 2016 was not the first year that solo dramas sought to address wider social issues. A reminder of that came in January, when New Repertory Theatre presented David Hare’s 1998 solo play “Via Dolorosa.’’ An account of the playwright’s journey in the Middle East, the examination of the tortured relationship between Israelis and Palestinians proved to be still sadly relevant, in the wake of a wave of stabbings in Israel.
A couple months later, New Rep presented Steve Yockey’s “Blackberry Winter,’’ a near-solo drama that starred Adrienne Krstansky as Vivienne, the 40-something daughter of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. (Two other actors portrayed symbolic woodland creatures who occasionally spoke, but the overwhelming majority of the lines were delivered by Krstansky in a monologue addressed to the audience.)
The play underscores the toll taken on family caregivers by a disease that afflicts more than 5 million Americans — and the difficult choice between personal care and institutional care that families often struggle with. Vivienne and her family have opted not to spend money on long-term care insurance, choosing to save it for the costly nursing-home care they know their mother will need down the road. At one point, the daughter describes a planned community near Amsterdam for residents who suffer from dementia and contrasts that with the frustrating “war of inches within an existing model of treatment’’ she must wage as her mother’s caregiver.
Later, in a line that could serve as the motto for outward-looking solo dramas, Vivienne says: “It’s. Not. About. Me.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.