Bess Welden wrote the play “Legbala Is A River” about the woman left behind when her husband, a doctor, volunteers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia. But the Maine playwright is quick to emphasize that it’s not an Ebola play. It’s a play about marriage and how a family transforms when the husband and father goes away for an extended period.
It is a story about partnership, motherhood, commitment, separation, spirituality and the tension between public service and personal sacrifice. “The story is fictional, from my imagination, but it’s based on research and reading that I did in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak,” Welden said. “There was a lot of attention paid to the doctors who were interrupting their lives to treat people, and then I started thinking about what it would be like for the people who stayed home.”
“Legbala Is A River” premieres Thursday at Mayo Street Arts in Portland and continues through June 17. It’s an unusual play in several respects. First, while Welden wrote the script and is the only actor seen by the audience – Christopher Holt provides the voice of the doctor, but never appears on the set – this is very much a collaborative play, created in equal parts by director Daniel Burson, musician and composer Hans Indigo Spencer and illustrator Leticia Plate. Spencer wrote and performs the soundtrack live, and with each performance Plate will create a live illustration on the set, based on her reactions to the action.
It’s unusual for another reason. Set and lighting designers Meg A. Anderson and Michaela Denoncourt created an installation-style set that will surround the audience. Made with muslin, the set encircles the audience and performers alike, making it feel like a tent or a yurt.
Welden calls it “a bagel configuration.” Each night’s audience is limited to 24 people, and most will sit along the edge of the installation. But a few people will sit right in the middle, or the hole of the bagel. “Even in my very early conception of the script, I came to the idea that I wanted the audience to encircle the play space,” she said.
She conceived it that way, in part, to accent the lyricism of the script and to force her to focus on the language and words and less on the action itself. “This character is in a real place of vulnerability. As a performer, to be able to explore the depth of that vulnerability is really exciting.”
Spencer will be in the circle, performing among the members of the audience, and Plate will make her nightly drawings on heavy paper that hangs from the tent walls. It’s all part of an effort to evoke an old-fashioned sense of storytelling, Burson said.
“Bess will be within a few feet and, in some instances, a few inches of the audience,” he said. “That level of closeness is something that is exciting and compelling. There is no remove. They are together in the performance space.”
Said Welden, “It’s an exciting challenge. It means using my acting skills in a different kind of way.”
Welden began the project working alone and expanded the creative team after she ran a draft of the play through Snowlion Rep’s “play lab” program for new work. Grants from the Maine Arts Commission helped pay for the play’s development, and it began to take its current shape a year ago after a week-long “incubation residency” at the Celebration Barn in South Paris.
Welden calls “Legbala” a “performance event” in which each artist pushes into new creative territory.
WHERE: Mayo Street Arts Center, 10 Mayo St., Portland
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thurday, Friday and Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June. 14. Through June 17.
TICKETS & INFO: $16; brownpapertickets.com