D. Lynn Meyers has been known to fret as she assembles the seasons for Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. The company calls itself a “premiere” theater, presenting plays unfamiliar to Tri-State audiences. That can be a challenge to market. But after two decades of Meyers’ artistic leadership, her subscribers have come to trust her judgment, many of them renewing for the next season even before shows are announced.
Meyers hit the trifecta with the second half of the current season — one shaped by the overarching concept of people stepping outside of their comfort zones to make hard choices. The final three shows each landed on the list of most-produced plays in the United States assembled annually by American Theatre magazine. Lest you think she looked at that list and programmed accordingly, know that Meyers’ season was announced in March 2018, long before the magazine published its list of most-produced plays in October. In other words, Meyers’ instinctive, gut-driven insights ensured that ETC subscribers will see some of the most popular new works on American stages this season.
First up is Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, which opened last week at the recently refurbished and expanded theater complex in Over-the-Rhine. A sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking play from 1879, it follows a woman who shockingly abandons her marriage and her children. Hnath’s sequel, a 2017 Broadway hit, imagines Nora Helmer 15 years later as a changed woman; sorting out complications that resulted from her past decision, she returns home to awkwardly ask for a favor. Focused on still relevant themes of marriage, fidelity and personal independence, Hnath’s play employs razor-sharp dialogue with a very contemporary sound. Meyers says she was excited by Hnath’s “unexpected turns on the classic situation,” and praises his writing as “so smart, so concise.”
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Regina Pugh, an actress familiar to local audiences at ETC, Know Theatre and elsewhere. Meyers approached Pugh with what the latter calls an “out of the blue request” to stage the show.
“I’m an actor first,” Pugh says. “I’m confident in my ability, but I don’t pursue opportunities like this. Lynn wanted a woman to direct.”
Meyers is certain Pugh is the right choice to direct the show.
“She is insightful, compassionate, always intellectually ahead of the game,” Meyers says. “She’s a woman of few words but incredibly honest actions. She had to think about taking on this task for a while, but I knew she would understand these women.”
As Pugh talked with Meyers about the show, she likened it to a boxing match: There are four scenes with Nora going toe-to-toe with another character, just like the rounds of a prize fight.
“At the end, who wins?" Meyers asks. "Everybody’s beaten up.”
And everyone, in fact, has a legitimate point of view.
The cast includes Connan Morrissey, a professional actress who’s been in Cincinnati for several years but involved in another career. She plays Nora, a character who is “fiercely alive,” according to Meyers. Morrissey, she says, has exactly the right spark for the role. New York actor (and frequent ETC performer) Tony Campisi is Torvald, Nora’s conflicted husband. Current ETC acting apprentice Esther Cunningham portrays Emmy, Nora’s whip-smart daughter, who was 2 years old when her mother left the family behind. Local stage veteran Christine Dye plays Anne Marie, Nora’s one-time nanny who raised the children after Nora’s departure and has strong opinions of her own.
When asked how she would shape her cast, Pugh says, “I don’t show up with a prompt book full of blocking. Since I’m an actor myself, I like to find performances that fit and decide how to keep them all in the same play. So we create this story working in the rehearsal room together.”
A knowledge of Ibsen’s original play is not required, Pugh says: “You don’t have to know it before you see ‘Part 2.’ Don’t worry.” Hnath’s script is considered a comedy — not a farce, but not a tragedy. The show’s humor, according to Meyers, comes through the pain of characters who confront each other
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew will be ETC’s April production. It was Meyers’ first choice for the current season. She staged the playwright’s Detroit ’67 in 2014, and she likes this script even more, saying it might be “the best play I’ve read in 20 years.” Meyers envisions Morisseau as the next August Wilson, chronicling 21st-century African-American lives as the eminent playwright did for the 20th century.
“The honesty of her work is remarkable,” Meyers says. “She’s just an amazing writer.”
Set in Detroit in 2008 as the wheels are falling off the auto industry, Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew is a searing drama. Factories are closing and squeezing those left behind, putting extreme pressure on a makeshift family of blue-collar auto workers who must cope with management decisions. The production will be directed by Stori Ayers, who performed in Wilson’s Jitney at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 2016.
Meyers’ play selection hat trick is rounded out with Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves in June, the story of a team of nine elite teenage athletes on a high school girls soccer team. Meyers calls the script “relentlessly fierce” and likes that it’s “so wide awake.” “These young women will inherit the world because they are strong, brilliant, proud people,” she says.
The ferocious, unflinching coming-of-age drama was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
“This will not be easy theater for audiences or actors,” says Meyers, who will stage the show, adding that actors have been clamoring to audition for the production.
“We don’t do ‘easy’ theater here at Ensemble,” she says proudly. “This is decidedly not easy theater.”
All three shows represent the kind of theater that Meyers loves to present, and she’s quick to point out that all three shows will be directed by women. “No compromises!” she says.
A Doll’s House Part 2, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through March 30. ETC will present Skeleton Crew April 13-May 11 and The Wolves June 1-29. More info/tickets: ensemblecincinnati.org.