At a women’s writer’s retreat off the coast of Washington state, playwright Catherine Trieschmann first imagined Abigail — a bright, liberal minister in difficulty.
WAM Theatre has invited her to the Berkshires to collaborate on her work in progress, “Holy Laughter,” running through Nov. 22 at the St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield.
Abigail was feeling lost in her 20s, said Amie Lytle, who plays the leading role. Volunteering at a food bank, Abigail saw a nun care for a disturbed and angry man with sores on his hands. She was inspired by a strong feeling of faith and grace. Now, ordained as an Episcopalian priest, she is setting out to lead a community.
“She’s a committed, spiritual woman,” said Dana Harrison, who plays Ester, an intelligent congregant willing to stand up for her views, and Myra, an isolated, outspoken woman looking for connection. “We see [Abigail] grow so much through interactions with the characters. The ones she clashes with most give her the most truth.”
As Abigail faces her congregants’ claims and crises — Martine’s troubled brother in Haiti, displaced people in their own city and the failing boiler in their basement — she will also face the strength of this group and what it will take to hold them together.
“Most of these people without this community would be alone,” Harrison said.
Abigail and her congregants come together in the “group of misfits” genre, like a sports team of unlikely athletes trying to win a championship, said director Megan Sandberg-Zakian.
She has never dealt with a new play that deals with religion and is not critical of it, she said.
“When people hear you’re doing a play about a church,” Lytle agreed, “they either expect the play will mock religion, like ‘The Book of Mormon,’ or that it will be a religious play.”
Trieschmann has written before about evangelical Christians, Calvinists and Baptists — all conservative congregations, she said, compared to Abigail’s liberal and progressive church. The expressiveness of Episcopalian faith gave her safe place to explore comedy, she said. Episcopalian worship can be theatrical in its ritual, its high church liturgy and its hymns.
Music carries tension in her play. Noah, in his 20s, wants to perform his own modern movements to “Lord of the Dance.” Lloyd, in his 70s, rants about any change to the liturgy and insists on singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a ringing tenor. Ester protests against such a warlike and Colonial tune.
Church history is complicated, between beautiful and horrible acts and echoes of Colonialism, Trieschmann said in a phone interview from her home in Hays, Ks.
“Some of those hymns strike an awkward chord,” she said, “but they are beautiful, and there is something powerful in reading a liturgy and singing hymns people have sung for hundreds of years.
“It’s a problem for many churches, how to move forward and speak to young people and not lose their traditions.”
In Abigail’s experience, reaching out to people can be deceptively difficult.
“Race, class, gender blind us from seeing clearly what other people need,” Trieschmann said. “And you can’t help someone who is unable to help themselves.”
She finds comedy in the gaps between who people are and who they think they are. And the director and the actors find power in comedy that can become suddenly serious.
“It’s the hardest thing in the tone of the play to get right,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “It swings around. … That’s my favorite kind of comedy. Hahahaha — wait, should I be laughing at that?”
Those moments of unexpected complexity gave the characters and the play depth, Lytle said, like the deep friendship between Martine and Noah — and the honesty between Abigail and Victor, her Bishop and mentor.
“She’s so open and free with him,” she said, “able to talk about her past, whiskey, sex.”
“Victor took awhile to develop as a character,” Trieschmann said.
She realized the play needed a grounded spiritual center.
“He has evolved into that,” she said. “It’s tempting to write an outlandish Bishop, unorthodox, but it became clear people wanted some wisdom in the play.”
Abigail finds her own wisdom as she learns new ways to lead.
“We don’t have many plays about strong women leaders,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “What we have are mostly re-cast Shakespeare, not plays written for women. If she were a man, there would be a lot less feeling in the congregation of ‘I can get her to do it my way.’”
Creating a community and holding people together takes skill and strength of will.
“Leadership is not about making people come together but about making space for people to come together,” Sandberg-Zakian said.
Compassionate leadership is often seen as an oxymoron, she said, as though strength means not listening. She finds leaders much more effective when they understand the people in a group and work with them.
She has created that kind of supportive environment here, Harrison said.
“The exchange of energy — it’s infectious; people can feel it,” she said.
She praised all the cast for their attention to the craft, working even on breaks and digging into their characters’ lives.
A lot of actors have had that feeling of finding their people in the theater, Lytle said: “a feeling of home, safety, joy …”
“Unity,” Harrison said.
“Theater and theology have the same Greek root,” she added. “Theos — of the gods.”
What: WAM Theatre presents Catherine Trieschmann’s “Holy Laughter,” work in progress
Where: Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 22
Tickets: $18 – $40
Information: 413-236-8888, Barrington Stage box office at 30 Union St., Pittsfield, or tickets.barringtonstageco.org