Belfast native Leo McGann drew on childhood memories of that sometimes troubled city as fuel for “The Honey Trap,” a historical drama-thriller that begins performances at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on Feb. 16.
McGann, 29, was about 10 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, putting an end to the prolonged violent conflict — known as the Troubles — between supporters of a united, independent Ireland and United Kingdom loyalists.
“I can remember a city that was very tense, and it was still very normal for bomb scares to disrupt life in the center of the city,” McGann says. “And for part of my childhood I had a real sense of fearfulness. For children and young people, it wouldn’t be uncommon if you were in a different neighborhood to be stopped and asked what your religion was. Depending on which part of town you’re in, there’s probably a right or wrong answer to that, of which you could never be certain.”
McGann is in his final year of Boston University’s Masters of Fine Arts playwriting program, and this will be the first production of one of his full-length plays. Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which operates under the auspices of BU, focuses on plays by current MFA candidates and distinguished alumni. Artistic personnel for productions are a mix of students augmented by some professionals in the local theater world, particularly if, say, a script calls for older actors — as does this one. Stage veterans Barlow Adamson and Maureen Keiller play key roles, the former as a military veteran now in his 50s and the latter as a woman whose importance is gradually revealed.
The playwright earned a degree in modern history from Oxford University with a concentration in the peak years of the Troubles, and “The Honey Trap” segues between contemporary scenes and flashbacks to the late 1970s. The play concerns two soldiers who were lured by female Irish Republican Army agents to a supposed tryst that in fact was a deadly trap. One soldier stayed with the women and was killed; the other, named Dave, made an early goodnight and returned to barracks unharmed. But the focus is on the lingering trauma of warfare, experienced years later.
Last year, the play — then called “In the Moment” — won the National Partners of the American Theatre Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
“He chooses what I would call important topics and then comments on them from a modern point of view, so he’s looking back and saying something to us about our lives today,” Kate Snodgrass, the head of BU’s playwriting MFA program, says of McGann. “He has that playwright’s mind that is communicating something all the time.”
“The Honey Trap” also takes inspiration from Boston College’s Belfast Project, the effort to record and collect oral histories from combatants in the Troubles. In 2013 the school complied with a federal court order to release interviews containing information about a Belfast woman who was abducted in 1972 and killed by the IRA, despite having promised interview participants that their words would remain confidential. (That information led to the arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.) BC later elected not to house any remaining materials any longer and offered to return them to project participants.
In McGann’s play, a similar academic project serves as a means for Dave, the British army veteran, to uncover the identity of his comrade’s killer.
“What if someone was interviewed for a project like this and became so obsessed with the information that he goes back to Belfast seeking revenge and closure? What would happen?” says McCann, summarizing the thought process that led him from BC’s Belfast Project to the essential conflict of “The Honey Trap.”
He notes that the face of Belfast has changed significantly since the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but it’s the lingering wounds from the Troubles that draw his artistic interest.
“Since the peace process, people have done their best to move on and build a future for everyone,” he says, “but at the same time there’s so much pain and bitterness beneath the surface — or not so far beneath the surface, sometimes — about what happened.”
The Honey Trap
Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Feb. 16-26. Tickets $10-$30, 866-811-4111, www.bu.edu/bpt