Many years ago Gwyn McAllister began to write articles for this very paper, along with a steady stream of magazine stories. And then one day, she sat down and penned a play.
The first glimmer struck a few years ago when she entrained from Manhattan to a theater in New Jersey to watch one of George Bernard Shaw’s lesser-known plays, the 1909 “Misalliance.” The action takes place in a single afternoon at a large country estate in the English countryside. On Gwyn’s long subway ride back to her apartment in Harlem, she got to thinking she could follow in Shaw’s admittedly giant footsteps and write her own Edwardian comedy set in an English country house. At that moment she was seized with a notion of how to turn that venerable genre on its head.
Naturally it took her a few years to produce a pile of pages with the working title “The Green Rose.” She had begun to gain some familiarity with the craft by sitting in on readings at the Naked Angels in the East Village. Back on Martha’s Vineyard — Gwyn has long had a Victorian cottage on Samoset Street in Oak Bluffs — “The Green Rose” was chosen for a Monday Night staged reading at our own playhouse in Vineyard Haven.
Fall and winter slid by. In March, Naked Angels gave Gwyn’s play a staged reading. In early April, the bound-for-glory novice received word from artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo that the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse would be honored to present the Edwardian comedy as a world premiere.
Munafo, with McAllister’s approval, renamed the play “La Passionata” after another breed of English rose. And in the meantime, the green rose, a fictional flower, provides a rich McAllister-assisted mythology at the heart of the romance.
And speaking of romance, for those familiar with Edwardian-era plays, novels, and musicals, some of the masterful writers of the day, including Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham, all gay yet forced to hide their true heart’s desires, resigned themselves to writing boy-meets-girl courtships, thereby hiding their rainbow colors. That had to hurt.
McAllister has taken this quandary to a new realm. She gives us Edwardian manners, genteel ladies fussing over flower beds, “tra la la” conversations and … an openly gay couple played by Matt Greenberg and Michael Jennings Mahoney. The other characters, with one delightful exception, know nothing about “the love that dare not speak its name,” but we in the audience are permitted to view the gay love story unfolding. And the young fellows’ broad-minded friend, the lovely and ingenious Fiona (Molly Densmore) helps usher them to a life together, albeit with the usual boy-meets-girl signposts in place.
On Saturday June 9, I popped in on a rehearsal in the two-year-old hall adjacent to the playhouse, with its bright raspberry-red walls and ceiling. MJ. Munafo sat behind a desk, stage manager Jynelly Rosario rode herd over her computer and other tech gear, while five of the players, still ‘on book’ as they say in the theatah, churned over one of the pivotal garden scenes (in a play of all pivotal garden scenes). Playwright McAllister was on hand to make word or line changes as necessary.
During a break, I stalked the actors to find out what had landed them in this particular theater setting for the debut play of the summer lineup. The most Vineyard-oriented was David P.B. Stephens, a fifth-generation East Chopper. Graduated from college in 1976, he moved here year-round, driving tour buses for Julie Ben David, bookkeeping at Goodale’s, banktelling at MVNB, and digging for scallops. “I quit the last when I realized there were easier ways to go broke.”
A lot of life happened in the following years, as well as a lot of acting and singing gigs. Somewhere in the mix he met MJ Bruder Munafo. “I left for Trinity Rep in Providence for seven years, then tried New York, L.A. My last three shows have all been at the Vineyard Playhouse, all world premieres, and all necessitated an English accent. At last, my career has a theme!”
The youngest member of the cast, Finty Kelly, who plays Clarice, a ditzily devout young churchwoman, was herself conveniently born and bred in the U.K., and had this to say about how she got here: “I was born and bred in Reading and then moved over to New York to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.” There she met another actress who guided her to the audition for “Passionata.” “I just recently graduated from the Third Year Academy Company, so this is my first professional acting job since being out in the real world!”
Densmore, who plays the indomitable Fiona, says “I went to an EPA [an Equity Principal Audition, which is an open call for members of the actor’s union] and auditioned for the playhouse’s season. I picked a monologue from a farce I did a couple years ago, and added a British accent … Then I got a callback and, voilà! I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s beautiful, and I’m excited to explore more in the next couple weeks.”
“Passionata” begins previews on June 23, with opening night on June 26. It runs through July 14. To reserve seats, visit mvplayhouse.org.