This weekend, Project SEE Theatre opens the final show of its first full season, Lanford Wilson's mid-1980s drama Burn This.
Playing the centerpiece character of Anna, co-director Ellie Clark is fairly focused on this show, the second consecutive Wilson script the theater has staged. But she can take a glance back to the theater's first show, a production of Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet in December 2010, and appreciate the progress.
"To be selling out performances kind of blew my mind," Clark said, referring to the theater's most recent production, The Hot l Baltimore. "You always wonder, you know, it's not until 20 minutes before the show and you think, 'Is anybody coming?' So being out here during Hot l and walking out 40 minutes before and there are like 30 people in the lobby, I think, 'Oh, people are coming.'"
And people are buying tickets to what Project SEE is selling, which in the case of the theater's final two shows of the season was a tribute to the recently deceased Wilson, who infused his contemporary tales with canny craftsmanship and poetic language.
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The story centers on Anna and three men in her life. She and her gay roommate, Larry, recently lost their other roommate, Robbie, in a boating accident. Her longtime lover, Burton, a successful screenwriter, is part of their group of friends, but Robbie's brother Pale shows up and complicates things.
The play premiered in New York in 1987 with a cast that included John Malkovich as Pale and Joan Allen as Anna. Allen won a Tony Award for best actress for her performance.
"Everything connects to the theme of the play," says Spencer Christensen, who plays Larry. "Everything, when we started to look at it, Wilson put in there with a specific purpose."
Peter Kelly, who plays Burton, says, "We broke down every time a color was mentioned in the script or food or sound or light, and it just kept coming back to 'Wow, Lanford Wilson thought of everything,' like this is not a mistake how many times he uses red, or how many times there are references to no light or there is light, or it's gray. So it really gets you into the world of the play."
Christensen points out that Pale's favorite drink is cognac, a type of brandy, which is an English word that's a variation on the Dutch brandewijn, or "burnt wine."
"There are all these references to burning and how hot Pale is all the time," Christensen says. "As an actor, you read a script and you say, 'I wonder if the playwright meant something by this?"
Often, Wilson did.
Burn This was written more than a decade after The Hot l Baltimore. It is a very different story than the large-cast Hot l, but director Sullivan Canaday White says there are similarities, including the grittiness of the stories and the humor.
Burn This is a distinctly New York story, presented by a cast that has lived or currently lives in New York. Clark and Christensen moved to New York after graduating from the University of Kentucky. Bergman is a native New Yorker who moved to Lexington with Clark when she came home a few years ago. White, now an associate professor of theater at Transylvania University, spent some time in New York between her years at Actors Theatre of Louisville and her academic career. Kelly lives in New York.
Citing a busy season in Lexington theater, White says she called Kelly, whom she knew when he was in the acting apprentice program at Actors Theatre, to see whether he could play Burton.
In a small-world, small-city experience, Clark and Christensen discovered that they had lived close to Kelly when they were in New York.
"It's nice that we all know the references to the places, what a New York loft is like and even the entrances, and how long does it take me to come up those stairs," Kelly says. "We know what it's like, being in those spaces."
And now Clark, White and Bergman know what it's like to launch a theater company.
"We do it because we want to share it," White says. "So having the audience grow each time we open a production, that's why you keep going."