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Hanover Playwright’s New Show Opens at Northern Stage

Thursday, January 28, 2016
White River Junction — Somewhere between portraying Emily in a Hanover High School production of Our Town in the 1970s and playing parts in John Sayles movies in the early and mid-1980s, Marisa Smith realized that she could live without acting out someone else’s words and vision on stage or screen.

“I enjoyed it, but I didn’t have the addiction to performing,” Smith recalled last week. “It wasn’t a do-or-die thing.”

Going into Northern Stage’s production of her comedy Mad Love this week, Smith wonders how she wound up on the other side of the creative equation of theater, crafting dialogue and stage directions for others to follow.

“The truth is that over the years, the play-writing has taken over a lot of my time,” said Smith, who co-owns a theatrical trade book-publishing business with her husband Eric Kraus. “You ask yourself, ‘How does that happen?’ It was something I didn’t expect to take over my life.”

The first hint came in 2004, when her friend Faith Catlin of Lyme directed Smith’s comedy of manners Book Group at the Eclipse Grange on Thetford Hill.

“When I sat in the audience for the first few performances, riding that wave of laughter,” Smith said, “I had to have that experience again.”

The next fix came during the staging of her second full-length play, The Divine Family Comedy at the Eclipse Grange about a year later. By then, Faith Catlin could see the yearning bloom.

They had met while acting summer stock at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway, N.H., during the 1970s, along with Sayles and the likes of David Strathairn, Gordon Clapp, Geena Davis and Catlin’s future husband John Griesemer.

“She was always the youngest of that group,” Catlin said. “When she decided to try her hand at play-writing, she had been around well-positioned actors, and had good examples among her friends and peers.”

And after finishing Book Group, Smith didn’t just drop the script at Catlin’s door and wait for opening night.

“She would come over to the house once a week and we’d work on structure and plot,” Catlin said. “It was sort of like playing chess. What scenes should happen when and where. She had a good ear. And she was a good rewriter, a fast rewriter. She would drive the actors crazy, but she knew that you have to do that stuff. She was very focused on making the play work.”

During the spring and summer of 2015, Smith focused on fine-tuning her comedy Saving Kitty, which sold out its run at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., starring American Pie and Best in Show alumna Jennifer Coolidge in a satire about efforts to “save” the main character from being evangelized.

“I start with an idea that irritates me,” Smith said. “With Saving Kitty, it all started with somebody bashing evangelicals. I’ve seen it in Hanover. I just think it’s so hypocritical. It tends to be something in the social fabric that bugs me. I love poking holes in the bubble.”

Smith grew up in the bubble of life in a college town, as the daughter of Dartmouth psychology professor and dean William M. Smith, and much of her work draws on life in those cozy confines.

“Her first two plays were about women going through affairs, dealing with infidelity in an academic setting,” Catlin recalled. “She’s a great observer, like Oscar Wilde. She was satirizing what she knew.”

Mad Love , on the other hand , evolved over nearly three years from a play that Smith originally entitled The Nap, named for a baseball card of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie that figures in the plot. Inspired by interviews that Smith had conducted with female students at Dartmouth for a separate project, the main character, Sloane Hudson, emerges from a bad experience during her undergraduate days at an Ivy League college determined to have a baby by finding a sperm donor instead of marrying and settling down. The best candidate, Brandon, has issues of his own, including living with his brother Doug, who in turn is swooning over Katerina, a hooker from Ukraine.

“Katerina came from a 10-minute play I’d done,” Smith said. “Suddenly, she just entered the world of this play.”

Smith learned how to take advantage of such moments after joining the Lark Play Development Center in New York City, coming out of Divine Family Comedy in 20 05. The center “became for me an incubator place” where she shared drafts of plays and ideas with other aspiring playwrights. She also found a mentor in Theresa Rebeck, creator of the TV series Smash. Rebeck went on to direct a workshop reading of Mad Love at the University of Delaware.

“She said, ‘You’re a playwright,’ ” Smith recalled. “‘You can write comedy. That is not easy.’ … You try to find people who believe in you, but will give you the straight story, so that you will improve.”

Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne could see the improvement Smith had wrought since the readings of Mad Love at the Briggs Opera House two years ago, making the current incarnation “an easy choice” for one of the first productions at the Barrette Center.

“This play takes on the hook up culture in a worldly and timely way,” Dunne said on Wednesday. “It really takes that culture to task. ... Marisa and our director, Maggie Burrows, have been giving the story a much greater arc that speaks to younger people. By the end of the play, the two main characters peel many layers back and get to really know each other.”

Meanwhile, Smith is celebrating the harmonic convergence of her own career arc with Northern Stage opening the Barrette Center, complete with multiple rehearsal spaces as well as a modern main stage.

“Northern Stage is just the greatest,” Smith said. “It’s so hard to get a production at a major regional theater. It’s such a coveted space. … The physical facility is amazing, and everybody working there is happy and upbeat. To be here, where I grew up, it’s so thrilling. It’s beyond belief.

“I’m trying to enjoy every minute.”

Following previews tonight and Friday night at 7:30 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, Northern Stage will open its production of Hanover playwright Marisa Smith’s comedy Mad Love on Saturday night at 7:30. Next comes a matinee at 5 Sunday afternoon and 7:30 shows on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The show runs through Feb. 13. Northern Stage advises that Smith’s take on “romance in the age of hookups and cell phones” is appropriate for ages 13 and older. For tickets ($30 for the previews, $20 this coming Tuesday night and $14 to $54 all other shows) and more information, visit or call 802-296-7000.

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