Sarah Beth Connelly, left, and playwright Desi Van Til read lines as actors Rob Cameron and Ian Carlsen wrestle during a rehearsal of Van Til’s new play “Childish.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When Desi Van Til and Sean Mewshaw started collaborating on films and scripts some 20 years ago, they weren’t married, had no children and had yet to build a life together.

The work, says Mewshaw, was everything. Now that the Portland couple has been married for 18 years, with two children, working together is different, and better.

“The more we work together, the better we’re able to separate work and life. The work can just be the work now,” said Mewshaw, 49. “At first, it was everything. We fought over it. Now after years of collaborating, we’ve gotten very comfortable in how we talk about the work.”

The Portland couple’s most recent collaboration is a play written by Van Til and directed by Mewshaw, called “Childish.” It’s about two married couples who meet in an adoption support group and whose lives become intertwined. Set in Portland just before the pandemic, the play deals with parenthood, fertility, class and race. It stars local actors Rob Cameron, Sarah Beth Connelly and Ian Carlsen, plus Seattle-based Pepper Binkley, and will run May 8-12 at Space in Portland.

One of Mewshaw and Van Til’s first collaborations was a short film in 2004 called “Last Night,” starring Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, about a woman dying of cancer. Their best-known artistic partnership is the 2015 romantic comedy “Tumbledown,” starring Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”) and Rebecca Hall. That film, set in Farmington but filmed mostly in Massachusetts, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opened at theaters nationally on Valentine’s Day in 2016.

The couple have collaborated many times since “Tumbledown,” on short films or on scripts for TV shows or films that might get sold but don’t get made. So to work together on a play in Portland, something that is completely under their control, is a nice feeling, said Van Til, 47.


“It feels really nice to be able to write something that won’t end up in a drawer somewhere. We can just put this play on ourselves, and I can actually connect with an audience,” she said.

From left, Sean Mewshaw, Ian Carlsen, Sarah Beth Connelly, Desi Van Til and Rob Cameron rehearse “Childish.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Connelly, who plays one of the two female leads in the production, says she’s been impressed by how Van Til and Mewshaw work together in rehearsals. She said a casual observer would not know they are husband and wife.

“They are so professional, and the focus is just on getting things right,” said Connelly. “Desi is the writer and Sean is the director, and they each do their job.”

The couple met in Hollywood, where both worked on several big-budget films made by other people. Van Til, who is originally from Farmington, was an associate producer on the comedies “13 Going On 30” (2004), starring Jennifer Garner, and “Drillbit Taylor” (2008), starring Owen Wilson. Mewshaw was an assistant director on Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002) and a production assistant on “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.

The couple married in 2006 and moved to Maine in 2007, with an eye to making an independent film of Van Til’s story “Tumbledown.” The romantic comedy is set in Farmington and gets its name from the nearby mountain. The film is about a young widow (Hall), who is living among friends and family in Farmington and trying to deal with the loss of her husband, an acclaimed singer-songwriter. Sudeikis plays a writer who comes to town to research the dead singer, and a romance begins.

Though the couple tried hard to make the film in Maine, they ended up shooting most of it in small towns and rural areas in Massachusetts, because that state offered much larger financial incentives, which sway the films’ financial backers. Mewshaw directed that film, and Van Til wrote the screenplay.


“It took years for us to make that film, and in the end, we just couldn’t get it done here, though we really wanted to,” said Van Til. “Independent filmmaking is such a slow-moving process, and it’s frustrating because so much is beyond your control.”

Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis in a scene from “Tumbledown,” a collaboration between Desi Van Til and Sean Mewshaw. The Portland couple is teaming again for a play called “Childish” that opens in May at Space. Photo courtesy of “Tumbledown”


This is Van Til’s first play. She worked for about a year writing a TV series based on the book “The Invisible Bridge,” about the lives of Hungarian Jews following Hitler’s rise to power, and sold the pilot to a production company but said it will probably never get made.

She said one film executive called her writing “play-like,” because it was heavy on dialogue. Dialogue and “digging deep” into characters are her favorite parts of writing, she said, so it makes sense that she should write a play.

Van Til started writing the story that would become “Childish” in 2018 or 2019. On her laptop, she titled the file “Is this a play?” because she wasn’t sure whether she’d try to sell the story to filmmakers, make a film of it or write it for the stage.

The idea for the focus on fertility and adoption came to Van Til after hearing friends’ struggles to have children, either by adoption or other means. She watched one friend struggle for years with the “extraordinarily complicated process” of international adoption. She also had friends suffer miscarriage and explore the costly option of in vitro fertilization.


“I was hearing what all these people were going through, and I, in my 40s, was starting to have a sense of the end of my own fertile years,” said Van Til, who gave birth to the couple’s two children, a high school freshman and a third grader. “I started to think about what it must be like for women to be dealing with all of that, all the things related to wanting and trying to have children.”

From left, director Sean Mewshaw, actors Ian Carlsen and Sarah Beth Connelly, and writer Desi Van Til during rehearsal of the new play “Childish.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The play focuses on the relationship between two Portland couples that meet at an adoption support group, dealing with different issues. Alice Vaughan, 42, (played by Binkley) is an illustrator, while her husband Evan Vaughan, 48, (played by Cameron) is a real estate developer. They are white and well off.

Nella Armstrong, 36, (Connelly) is Black and works for Planned Parenthood. Her husband Tyler Armstrong, 38, (Carlsen) who is white, is a high school history teacher. Their meager income is one of their obstacles.

The actresses playing the lead roles have personal connections. Connelly, who is Black, was adopted by a white family and raised in Maine. Like Van Til, she said she has seen female friends struggle with fertility and wanting to have children, which has helped her with the role.

Van Til didn’t know Connelly was adopted before she was cast. Reading the role of Nella, Connelly was impressed with how believable Van Til made the character.

“I feel like she wrote it for me. We’re a biracial couple (in the play), and I’ve lived that, being part of a biracial family,” said Connelly. “She’s created a very authentic character.”


Binkley, who had a role in “Tumbledown,” created a web series a few years ago called “It’s Freezing Out There,” a dramedy focusing on a woman in her mid-30s considering her options for having a child, including freezing her eggs, since the risks of pregnancy increase as a woman gets older. She’s also not sure her relationship at the time will be long-term.

Desi Van Til and Sarah Beth Connelly, left, warm up before a rehearsal of the new play “Childish.” Van Til is the writer but had been reading one of the lead roles in rehearsals, in place of actress Pepper Binkley, who lives near Seattle. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Binkley herself had frozen her eggs in her 30s, not knowing exactly when she and her husband would want to have children. And her husband’s insurance covered it. Her personal experience, and her experience writing a web series about the issue, made Van Til’s play attractive to her. Because Binkley lives in the Seattle area, Van Til read her lines in early rehearsals.

“I think she knew my connection to the material would be a lure. The struggle with procreation is the A story but there are a lot of B stories, dealing with economics, races, medical access,” said Binkley. “Some people have a great need to have children, and that can make people act in extreme ways.”

Some of the issues in the play are specific to Portland, like how much the city has changed in recent years and how expensive housing has become, even when Van Til started writing the play in 2019.

“One of the couples is being squeezed out as the city gentrifies. Their apartment building has been bought by somebody from away, and he’s jacked up the rents,” Van Til said.

Van Til has also written a script for an independent film that she and Mewshaw are working to get financing for. It’s a father-daughter story set at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, south of Blue Hill, and they hope to shoot it in the area too. Mewshaw recently shot a short film in nearby Brooksville called “The Diver,” based on a story by Portland writer Lewis Robinson and starring Maine actor Matthew Delamater and Binkley. Mewshaw and Van Til hope the film, about a local Maine diver hired to help a family whose sailboat is marooned, will help draw attention to their plans to shoot a feature film in that area and attract financial backers.

“Again, this is something I wrote and Sean will direct,” Van Til said of the boatbuilding film. “It’s something we’re really excited about.”

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