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BU Playwright Student’s Drama Tackles Faith, Family, Forgiveness

Boston Playwright Theatre stages Andrew Joseph Clarke’s Faithless

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Photo of Andrew Joseph Clarke

Playwright Andrew Joseph Clarke (GRS’17), says Faithless was shaped by the voices he heard growing up in the Boston Suburbs. Photos by Michael D. Spencer

“Is grandma gonna die?” the teenager whines. “I have school tomorrow.”

Anyone who’s spent a long night with family in a hospital waiting room will recognize the mix of the mundane and the mortal in Andrew Joseph Clarke’s Faithless, running through December 18 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT). Bostonians should feel especially familiar with the adult Foley sisters, Maureen and Patty, and their prodigal brother Skip, as well as Patty’s 15-year-old daughter Sam, who looks on as the three siblings wait and fret and unpack decades of family baggage.

“As much as this is not autobiographical, these are definitely voices that I know, voices that I knew growing up, going to church, voices in my family,” says Clarke (GRS’17), who grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts.

The Foleys’ mix of wounded anger, affection, and black humor is very specifically Boston Irish-Catholic, says the playwright: “I wanted to tell a story that would be familiar to a Boston audience, that would resonate with them. I wanted the audience to see these people and recognize them.”

The play is the second of five this season at BPT penned by MFA students in the BU Playwriting Program class of 2017. Faithless and three of the others are co-produced by the Playwriting program and the School of Theatre as part of their collaborative New Play Initiative, with student playwrights, directors, and designers.

The cast: Maureen Keiller (Maureen), Christine Power (Patty), and Greg Maraio (Skip), along with School of Theatre senior Abby Knipp (CFA’17) as Sam. And while their sensibilities may be familiar to Boston audiences, the actors do not try to replicate Boston accents.

Patty and Sam have recently moved back from New York. Maureen, never married, teaches at Arlington Catholic, Sam’s new school, and appears at first to be the only one who has held onto her Catholic faith.

Grandma remains out of sight in her hospital bed, while her prognosis and treatment become the object of a tug-of-war between the sisters. Then Skip arrives, after more than a decade of exile. There’s not much to do in that waiting room but talk, so that’s what they do, starting with common sibling bickering and working up to the family’s darkest truths: why Skip really left and what kind of man their father was.

“It honestly started with Maureen and Patty, and that conflict of ‘What do we do, what do we not do?’” Clarke says. “I knew I needed another person in there, and I knew I needed him to be a wild card, and that’s what he’s developed into. He’s the person who comes in and changes the status quo. Skip is when it started being a play, basically.”

Renee E. Yancey (CFA’17), playwright Andrew Joseph Clarke (GRS’17), and director Stephen J. Pick (CFA’18) sitting down at rehearsal

Staging a play set entirely in a hospital waiting room was the challenge for (from left) stage manager Renee E. Yancey (CFA’17), playwright Andrew Joseph Clarke (GRS’17), and director Stephen J. Pick (CFA’18), seen at rehearsal.

The Playwriting Program leans strongly toward the “write what you know” school of composition. Clarke says his work alternates between realistic and zanier, more offbeat work. He says Faithless started out as a very different play written for a class taught by award-winning playwright Ronan Noone (GRS’01), an adjunct assistant professor of playwriting. Noone pushed him to write something that was true to the world in which he grew up, and he did, adopting the classic Aristotelean unities: one scene, one set, one story.

“It was just, have these people whose voices I know stuck in that room until the end,” Clarke says. “The first draft came about very quickly.”

As the New Play Initiative intends, Faithless was also a learning experience for director Stephen Pick (CFA’18).

“A lot of things we’ll do as directors are by Shakespeare or by someone who has been dead for hundreds of years or at least is not on campus,” Pick says with a laugh. “One of the things the directing program is really trying to do is get us a lot of experience with living playwrights on new work.”

He and Clarke have been working on Faithless since last May, powering through a dozen drafts and a workshop performance with student actors. “If I’m confused by a moment, I usually won’t say, ‘This isn’t right,’ I’ll say, ‘What is this moment about? What do you want it to be about?’” Pick says. “In the process of making him work through what he really wants from that moment, he usually comes to something which is really great.”

The other student-written plays in BPT’s season are: Memorial by Livian Yeh (GRS’17), which ran earlier this fall; The Honey Trap by Leo McGann (GRS’17); Franklin by Samantha Noble (GRS’17); and Every Piece of Me by Mary Conroy (GRS’17). The sixth play in BPT’s season is Noone’s The Atheist, which he is updating by making the central character—played by Chris Pine off Broadway in 2006—a woman.

Faithless runs through Sunday, Dec. 18, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for BU faculty and staff, $25 for seniors, and $10 for students with a valid ID. Tickets can be purchased here. To get to the theater via public transportation, take the BU shuttle to the last stop (Nickerson Field) or take an MBTA Green Line B trolley to Pleasant Street.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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