In September, Keith Powell Beyland decided he was ready to get back into theater.
It had been a year since a stroke left him speechless and with limited motor skills on his right side. The effects are still apparent.
Beyland, 45, mostly communicates by charade – hand signals and acted-out phrases. His verbal skills mostly consist of “yes” and “no” and bursts of laughter.
But as his therapy and recovery continue, so does his theater company.
This week, after a year’s absence because of the stroke, Beyland’s Dramatic Repertory Company returns to the theater scene with “Sofonisba” by Maine playwright Callie Kimball. It opens Friday at the studio theater at Portland Stage Company and continues through Nov. 20.
It’s the story of Italian renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who spent 20 years as the court painter for King Phillip II of Spain. The play explores the painter’s relationship with young Queen Isabel. It stars Abigail Killeen as Sofonisba, Marjolaine Whittlesey as the queen and Sean Ramey in multiple roles.
Beyland, the company’s founding artistic director, typically directs its productions, but isn’t quite ready for the demands of that job, said his wife, Vanessa Beyland.
“Keith is still challenged verbally, and he’s working with a speech therapist to say sentences,” she said. “But he wanted to get back at it.”
He hopes to direct a spring production of “Venus in Fur,” which he had lined up last fall before he suffered the stroke.
Meantime, he asked Sally Wood to direct “Sofonisba.” During rehearsals, they sit side by side, communicating with notes and body language.
Wood and Beyland saw the play during the Little Festival of the Unexpected at Portland Stage this past spring. The festival promotes new work, and the Dramatic Repertory Company’s niche is presenting new work or plays that have never been produced in Portland.
“Sofonisba” felt like an appropriate play for the company’s return, said Vanessa Beyland.
“We feel our job is to come back and do what we do best,” she said. “It’s exciting. We get to return and be a part of the Portland theater scene.”
Wood’s first reaction after seeing a staged reading of the play at the Little Festival? “I can’t believe I have lived my whole life without knowing her,” she said of the play’s lead character. “She was an incredible artist and an incredible woman. Truth is always better than fiction.”
When Beyland asked her to direct, Wood immediately agreed. She enjoys the challenge of staging new work and was eager to work with Kimball, whom she had heard of but never met until they began collaborating on this show.
Kimball learned about the painter while in college. She fell in love, first, with Anguissolo’s painting skills and, later, with her personal story. It’s a story of intrigue and wonder, involving an amateur painter whose skills earned her the attention of the Spanish court and an unimaginable life. She lived into her 90s.
Kimball’s first challenge was focusing the story. “It’s an epic story, but these 20 years seemed to stand out. It’s the story of a woman artist struggling to keep her life and art true to her vision,” Kimball said.
It’s an evolving work, and this production is considered a workshop, though it will be fully staged and costumed. It’s a full-length, two-act play.
WHEN: Opens Friday; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday and Nov. 16-20
WHERE: Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave.
TICKETS & INFO: $20; dramaticrep.org