A story about writers perfecting their craft sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. But in the hands of playwright Colby Halloran and Brooksville’s Bagaduce Theatre, “Bird of Passage” is a compelling tale about the creative forces that drive every artist and the often painful path stories must take before being perfected and put on a page.
The 4-year-old summer company is hosting the world premiere of Halloran’s two-act play. It is about Ginny (Sally Mills), a world traveling, aspiring writer who rents a summer home on Orr’s Island, located in Casco Bay in Harpswell, for the winter.
The home belonged to the late Lawrence S. Hall (Robert Burke), once a professor of literature at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. Hall’s short story, “The Ledge,” won first place in the O. Henry Prize Collection in 1960. He died in 1993.
The play focuses on Ginny’s attempts, with the help of Hall’s ghost, to find her voice as a writer. It also touches on the places people choose to call home and the never-ending Maine debate over the value, or lack thereof, of people from away. That is humorously played out in dialogue between Harpswell native Rose (Monique Fowler) and real estate agent Marilyn (Anne O’Sullivan).
“Bird of Passage” is loosely based on time Halloran, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent living and writing in Hall’s Orr’s Island home. Halloran did not interact with Hall as her character Ginny does but his spirit was present, the playwright has said.
Fowler, who also directs the show, uses the small theater inside the barn on her family farm, to great advantage. Theatergoers feel like neighbors eavesdropping on the odd couple next door. The space itself adds to the intimacy of the dialogue. The director also finds ways to keep the characters moving so they aren’t stuck in one place on stage for too long.
Mills, an Ellsworth attorney who recently returned to acting, nearly stole the show from the professionals earlier this summer as a maid in Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.” Her demeanor as Ginny in “Bird of Passage” screams ordinary. This is the woman no one remembers and people bump into because they don’t see her on a bus and in the subway.
Ginny’s attempt at writing and telling one of her own stories is a way for her to, at long last, be seen and heard. Under Hall’s tutelage, she become a storyteller and, boy, does she have a harrowing tale — one almost as heartbreaking as “The Ledge” — to tell. Perhaps because she is not burdened with the craft of acting, Mills is totally open as an actress and makes Ginny’s rootless, sorrow touchingly real.
As Hall, Burke exudes an arrogant, condescending professorial attitude that Mills’ Ginny slowly chips away at until a caring teacher is revealed. The actor’s performance is subtly layered, and by the end of the play, a complex character has emerged. Theatergoers may not find him any more likable at the end of the play than they did at the beginning, but they do understand him.
Fowler, whose performances as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” and Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” were incandescent, gives a very low-key performance as Rose. A local who once cleaned Hall’s summer home, she is self-effacing but keenly observant and helpful to newcomer Ginny. O’Sullivan is equally fine as the real estate agent from Massachusetts who finds success advertising her coastal properties in Down East magazine.
The amount of time Halloran, Fowler and the small cast spent working together to present a shared vision of this story paid off at Sunday’s matinee. Despite a few stumbles over lines due to last minute script changes, “Bird of Passage” is a loving and lovely tribute to writers, wanderers and people whose roots run so deep, they can’t be transplanted. Most of all, it is an ode to the creative process, no matter the convoluted passage it often takes.
In a short four years, Fowler and her husband, general manager John Vivian, have taken Bagaduce from presenting readers’ theater its first season to producing a thoughtful and exciting new work set in Maine this fall. That makes this Brooksville-based company an exciting and innovative theater where modern classics are presented beside new plays with equal success and equal care.
“Bird of Passage” will be performed through Sept. 22 at Bagaduce Theatre, 176 Mills Point Road, Brooksville. For information, call 801-1536 or visit bagaducetheatre.com.