In Monica Wood’s debut play, “Papermaker,” having its world premiere at Portland Stage now through an extended run until May 24, is the convergence of labor and management, of love and duty, of New York City and small town Maine, and of superb writing, acting and stagecraft.
It’s worth mentioning that Wood is a novelist, a successful one, whose most recent bestseller was her 2012 memoir of growing up in Mexico, Maine. That book, “When We Were the Kennedys,” shares much DNA with this play, which takes place during a 1989 strike, hewing closely to real-life history. In 1987, Local 14 of the United Paperworkers International Union at the International Paper mill in Jay staged and lost a turbulent strike that labor experts view as one of the most pivotal in the American labor movement, one that helped exacerbate its loss of power.
What is extraordinary about Wood’s work here is how sharp and lean her language is, as though she’s been expertly writing plays for as long as she’s been writing novels. She must be used to depicting a vivid sense of small-town Maine and animating her characters in paragraphs and chapters. In “Papermaker,” she is unafraid of allowing quiet white space on stage, which the actors fill not just with their back and forth, but also with movements as expressive as their delivery of words.
Tom Bloom plays paper company executive Henry John McCoy, a fluently persuasive, sometimes impatient man who sincerely views his attempts to break the strike as saving the workers’ middle-class jobs. Bloom’s self-assured voice and body fill the room, rattled only by the emotional, sometimes naive insistence of McCoy’s daughter that he take another view. Emily McCoy (played with piquant intensity by Justine Salata) is shaken by the death of her mother and flails as she attempts to connect with her father. Her preoccupation with an ark being built in fictional Abbot Falls, Maine, by Ernie Donahue, played by Daniel Noel in an understated and layered performance, sets in motion the clash of viewpoints and humanity that rocks the characters’ ground, almost literally.
Ernie is building his ark (a striking behemoth in an elegantly shifting set) as a way to preoccupy himself during the strike, and as a gift to his ailing wife, Marie, played by Lisa Stathoplos, who maintains Marie’s tender-hearted strength even as cancer takes its toll. His son, Jake (Peter Albrink), is considering what to Ernie is the ultimate betrayal, crossing the picket line, in order to care for his young family. Nancy Letourneau (played with headstrong fervor by Moira Driscoll) is a nurse, forced out of retirement with her husband out of work, her caregiving duties and her sense of humor seriously challenged by anger when she unexpectedly encounters a bleeding McCoy in the heart of her suffering town.
Above all, Wood is a storyteller, but she doesn’t shirk her task as an entertainer. The dialogue is sometimes a bombardment of humor. Sally Wood (no relation to Monica) directs a cast that steps up to the challenge with razor-perfect timing and indefatigable expressiveness.
This play recalls the best work of television writer and producer Norman Lear, whose characters in the 1970s-era “All in the Family,” for example, intensely wrangled with each other, and whose arguments about personal matters and politics elided any easy sense of right and wrong. Wood’s characters are likewise loving and intense, faced with circumstances wrought by a changing economy, by the vagaries of health and death, and by their own confounding choices.
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, Portland
REVIEWED: April 25 (8 p.m. show); show runs through May 24.
The 2 p.m. May 10 performance will include a talk by Whit Richardson, a business reporter for the Portland Press Herald who wrote an investigative piece about the financial challenges facing paper mills in Maine today.
INFO: 207-774-0465; portlandstage.org