In Monica Wood’s new play, “The Half-Light,” one of the characters suffers life-altering grief and relies on a friend to help him find purpose and feel love.

Wood was partly inspired to write the play because of William Butler Yeats, whose poems she studied and learned by heart as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. She borrowed the title from Yeats’ poem “Cloths of Heaven”:

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

As she worked her way through the writing process, she wondered if she was channeling Yeats to tell the story of her own grief and the work she did to help her husband, Dan Abbott, recover from a suicide attempt in 2016. “I started writing it about three years ago, before Dan had his tragedy,” she said in an interview at Portland Stage, which premieres the play this week.

“It was interesting to pick it up again and realize that I was writing about a woman pulling a good man up from the bottom of a well. In a strange way, I think this is an autobiographical play. Dan and I are in such a good place now that I can afford to know that is what I am talking about, that is what I am writing about. It’s hard to know those things when you are in the thick of it.”

Writing something with even a hint of her personal story was not her intent, and the story Wood tells in “The Half-Light” does not resemble her own, other than perhaps in the strength and determination of the characters. But the larger arc of the story involves loss, redemption and “creating family out of broken pieces,” a common theme among her novels and plays, because “broken families is the issue of our time,” she said.

Maggie Mason as Iris, foreground, and the cast of “The Half-Light,” from left, Moira Driscoll, Brent Askari and Wilma Rivera. Photo by Lauren Kennedy/Courtesy of Portland Stage

It’s a heartfelt drama that asks what happens after we die and how we go on after suffering a deep loss.

It has previews Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and opens Friday. It runs through March 24. Wood will talk about the play and her life when she appears as a guest on MaineVoices Live, hosted by the Portland Press Herald, on March 5 in front of a sold-out audience at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

NOVELS, MEMOIRS, PLAYS

Wood, who lives in Portland, earned her way into the hearts of readers with her novels and memoirs, particularly “When We Were the Kennedys,” which told of her growing up in the close-knit community of Mexico and suffering the death of her father in 1963, the same year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

This is her second full-length play. Her first, “Papermaker,” tells a story of a family in a Maine mill town torn apart by labor unrest. It premiered at Portland Stage in 2015 and became the theater’s best-selling play, and has had several regional-theater productions.

The new play centers on a college secretary named Iris, who is told by a psychic that she can be trained to see the dead. With the encouragement of her friend Helen, Iris tries to find out if she has the gift. Meanwhile, a beloved colleague, Andrew, suffers a death in the family. That’s where the two stories merge.

The fourth character in the play is Helen’s daughter, Teresa, who believes she lives in a house that’s haunted and suffers from the kind of ghosts that appear when the vodka runs out.

For many, the half-light represents the characteristic of the light that emerges between daytime and nighttime, that mysterious moment of dusk. For Wood, the half-light represents the mysterious place between the living and the dead and also between the living and the living. She calls it “that undefinable place that makes relationships happen.”

“The Half-Light” reunites Wood with her soul sister of Portland theater, director Sally Wood. They are not related, though they often feel like it. “I think that Sally and I must have been connected in a previous life. We really do think alike, and she’s a uniquely insightful director,” Wood said. “She has a very clear vision of what she wants and no ego. That is an unusual combination. She is completely willing to try different things and completing willing to say, ‘I was wrong about that.’ She is also incredibly well prepared. She knows this play as well as I do.”

Sally Wood said she appreciates any opportunity to work with her friend, but directing this play has been particularly meaningful because of the subject and the playwright’s personal journey these last few years. The central message of the play, she said, is to pay attention to those you love.

“Because of Monica’s incredible capacity for love, I think that all of her plays will be about love in some way,” the director wrote in an email. “Monica didn’t just love when it was easy, she loved when it was hard – when everything felt like it was lost. Yet, she remained aware of how vulnerable and scared she felt, and she met that.”

There were times, she said, when no one knew what was going to happen next, times with no easy answers and only impossible choices. Despite that, “I saw how both Dan and Monica collected the shards of what was a terrifying experience to create an even more beautiful and awe-inspiring life.”

There’s a lot of that resolve and that sense of moving forward in “The Half-Light.” During rehearsals, some of the early discussion among the actors, director and playwright involved how our lives are different – indeed, how our core beings are different – before and after a life-changing event. Once a tragedy occurs, we are never the same and are left with an opportunity to transform into a better, stronger person, if we are willing to do the work.

“The Half-Light” doesn’t romanticize that achingly difficult process, Sally Wood said. “It shows how much work is required in order to transform.”

The play is imbued with a delicate and ethereal quality that reminds the director of an eggshell – easily broken and impossibly hard depending on how you squeeze it. “Yet, no matter how you hold it, that eggshell is protecting something beautiful inside. Hopefully, audiences will break out of their own shells after this show, and they will be able to meet up with their friends afterwards to talk about an experience that they have never been able to articulate before. I think this play encourages us all to be vulnerable with each other,” she wrote.

SMALL CAST, BIG TALENT

For “The Half-Light,” Wood is working with what she describes as a dream cast. It features two Portland actors, Moira Driscoll as Helen and Brent Askari as Andrew. Driscoll also starred in “Papermaker” and is one of Wood’s closest friends. Wood wrote Helen’s role with Driscoll in mind. “Moira is my playwriting muse. I would not be a playwright without Moira. She badgered me into writing a play in the first place,” Wood said.

Wood knows Askari as a writing colleague – he’s an award-winning playwright – and she’s watched him act for years. This is her first time working with him. The others actors are from New York: Maggie Mason in the lead role as Iris and Wilma Rivera as Teresa.

This just her second play, Wood feels like the new kid in the room. As time moves on, she finds herself increasingly comfortable calling herself a playwright. She’s always liked writing dialogue and has been pretty good at it. What she likes most about playwriting is working with actors and directors, who help shape the characters and story.

She has immense respect for their artistry. “What actors do is a lot like writing. They are inhabiting lives that are not their own, taking complete ownership of those lives and turning it into art,” she said. “It’s a beautiful process. They are doing in three dimensions what I do in two.”

Because this is a new play, Wood attends all rehearsals, showing up each morning with changes to the script based on the previous day’s work. On the morning of this interview, she spent four hours working on rewrites at home before coming into the theater and emailed her changes to stage manager Myles Hatch. He printed the new pages and distributed them to the actors when they showed up for rehearsal. Leading up to Friday’s opening, it’s a daily process of revision, Wood said. Among the rewrites, new scenes, cut scenes and restructured scenes, she estimates she has written the equivalent of three new scripts.

When “The Half-Light” is finished, she may go back to writing prose. She has some ideas for her next book.

Yeats led Wood to the title of her play, and her personal journey and growth peppered the play with wisdom and truth. But the true source of the work goes back to 1981 when Wood was attending graduate school at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham and studying to be a counselor. She was conversing in the office when a colleague mentioned that the psychic Alex Tanous was lecturing in a nearby classroom.

Tanous was a flamboyant character and colorful lecturer. His classes about the psychic phenomena and related topics were popular on campus. Wood snuck in the back of the classroom, hoping to be inconspicuous but assuming she would be noticed. Sure enough, two minutes later, Tanous summoned “the young lady in the green dress” to the front of the room, where he proceeded to analyze her and use the example of her colorful clothing as a way to reveal people’s true personalities.

Wood has carried that experience as a grain of an idea for a long time. When she began writing “The Half-Light,” she opened her first draft with that scene.

It has long since been jettisoned. There’s no psychic in the play, though one is mentioned, and no ghosts. It’s very much a play about living people, and it is not at all morose.

There’s a lot humor, a lot of laughs and abundant love and hope.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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