Sometimes, playwrights just get you.
When Tracy Brigden visited London some years ago, she saw a stage adaptation of The Mill on the Floss. The novel was written in 1860 by Mary Ann Evans (under the pseudonym George Elliot), but this theatrical version was written by Helen Edmundson. The novel incorporates scores of characters and covers 15 years. Edmundson's adaptation used only eight actors. Not an easy task.
"It was one of the most amazing theater experiences I ever had," says Brigden. Originally from New York, now a respected and oft-traveling director, Brigden has a lot to compare it to.
Since that fateful night, Brigden has followed Edmundson's work closely -- so closely, in fact, that the two women have become friends. Before she became artistic director of City Theatre, Brigden produced Edmundson's The Clearing for three different stages (at Vassar, and in Hartford and New York). Indeed, the first show Brigden ever directed at City Theatre was The Clearing.
Now Brigden chooses City Theatre's entire season, which begins this month. She's not pulling any punches: The season starts with Mother Teresa Is Dead, a throat-clenching drama by none other than Helen Edmundson. Naturally, Brigden is directing.
Written in 2002, Mother Teresa concerns an Englishwoman named Jane, who suddenly packs her bags and heads to India. Her husband follows, wondering what in blazes his wife is thinking. When he finds her, Jane is offering help to a children's shelter in a small, impoverished village. Why the sudden crisis? Unveiling Jane's motivation -- and sorting out the complex politics of privilege and obligation -- becomes a dramatic minefield.
"It's a hard play," Brigden admits. "It's about two very intense days, the most meaningful days in these people's lives." Originally, she had hoped to include Mother Teresa in an earlier season, but now -- post-Katrina, post-tsunami and post-implosion-of-Baghdad -- the play's themes have grown ever more urgent. "These are big, universal topics," Brigden says. Even the recent uncovering of Mother Teresa's correspondences, collected as the darkly themed book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, has added new dimensions to our understanding of both selflessness and the Third World.
There are also subtler nuances to the play, some centering on Jane's relationship with her husband, Mark. Sure, they're middle-class, but they're not gratuitously comfortable; although it's unstated in the script, Brigden has decided that neither is a university graduate. In the story, Jane willfully decides not to keep up with the Joneses, in order to accomplish something greater. Meanwhile, audiences may ask what the Joneses among us are up to, if greater accomplishments aren't their game. After all, the conflict between haves and have-nots exists virtually everywhere.
Still, Mother Teresa is more than the sum of its themes. Part of its attraction is the intense dialogue, the well-meaning-but-sometimes-wending characters, the not-preachy-but-still-very-discomfiting monologues. The drama's most horrifying symbol is a bag, carried by Jane, which she claims contains the body of a dead infant.
As for the production itself, the only hang-up was a last-minute replacement: Sam Redford stepped in to play Mark when Sean Meehan, who was originally cast, was sidelined by a pair of herniated discs in his neck.
To some, Mother Teresa might seem a little intense for unseasonably warm autumn weather, but Brigden isn't among them. "I feel it's one of the more smart, erudite, character-driven plays in the season," she says, "and I feel that in the fall, people are willing to think a little harder."
Mother Teresa Is Dead Oct. 4-28. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $20-39 (student/senior discounts available). 412-431-CITY, www.citytheatrecompany.org