Playwright sticks with city of Somerville
'Comp' continues focus on family and hometown
"Somerville," says playwright John Shea, "is the greatest city in the world."
Shea's conviction about his hometown runs throughout his plays, almost all of which are set in Somerville. "Erin Go-Bragh-less" explores what happens when friendships are fueled by alcohol; "Claire Silva" looks at child molestation in a tight-knit neighborhood; and "Comp," which opens this weekend at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, captures frictions in family dynamics after a young man is paralyzed in a work-related accident and forced to move back home with his mother.
"All the things I know about people - attitudes toward drinking, family relationships, religion, the notion of neighborhood - are things I learned growing up here in Somerville," Shea says by phone from his home near Ball Square. "I did stray outside the borders for a play about Bunker Hill, but Charlestown really isn't that far away."
"Comp," whose title refers to the workman's compensation that becomes the lead character's sole income, explores a delicate balance between brotherly love and brotherly resentment: The young man who is injured filled in on the job for a brother too drunk to make it to his shift. Ideas about fate and faith collide in the story.
"Most of my plays involve families, or in a larger play like "Claire Silva," it's the larger neighborhood family," says Shea, who grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Magoun Square. "I think that when you start with family you get a close-up look at individual reactions to bigger issues. It's too hard to get your head around issues like racism, child molestation, or even a devastating accident," he says, "but if you break it down to people audiences can get to know, the ideas become real."
Family expectations, especially a mother's quest for perfection in her sons and her religious devotion, are prominent themes in "Comp" - and they're topics familiar to most people, no matter where they're from, says Shea: "I just took the idea of writing what you know to heart."
Sometimes, sticking close to home can lead to dangerous emotional turf. "Claire Silva," which had a reading last spring in the Breaking Ground Festival of the Huntington Theatre Company, where Shea is a playwriting fellow, is about victims of child molestation at a day-care center who reunite as adults, when the molester is released from prison.
"Jeffrey Curley was my nephew," says Shea, referring to the 10-year-old Cambridge boy who was kidnapped, molested, and murdered in 1997. "It made me a little uneasy giving voices to [the molesters]."
Shea, who is in his 40s, says he only started writing plays seriously six years ago. He dropped out of high school to get a job, then earned his GED and went on to college. "When I got a few plays accepted into the Boston Theater Marathon," he says, "I thought, I can do this." "Erin Go Bragh-less" was developed at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut, and after several years as a teacher, Shea is writing full time and staying home to help take care of his three children.
"Writing is something you do solo," he says, "but a playwriting fellowship at the Huntington has been a great opportunity. We get together and dissect each other's work. Each of the other playwrights has a distinct and different voice, and it's great to hear these really diverse perspectives on storytelling."
"Comp" is at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., through Nov. 18. Tickets: $25. 866-811-4111, bu.edu/bpt.
Yesterday, more than 5,200 half-price tickets for local holiday theater, dance, and music shows went on sale as part of Mayor's Holiday Special 2007, a seasonal collaboration between the City of Boston and ArtsBoston. Three dozen shows are offering tickets, from the Holiday Pops to Boston Ballet's "The Nutcracker." Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis through Jan. 1 online only, at mayorsholidayspecial .com.
The Lyric Stage Company hosts playwright Christopher Shinn tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. before a 4 p.m. performance of his play "Dying City," and he will answer questions after the 8 p.m. show. Admission to the conversation is free. 617-585-5678, lyricstage.com. . . . "Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' " returns to the Citi Wang Theatre Nov. 23-Dec. 23 with the original stars from the San Francisco company, including Brian d'Arcy James and Jeffry Denman (recently seen in North Shore Music Theatre's "Crazy for You"), as well as New Hampshire native Kerry O'Malley, who appeared here in the production two years ago. Tickets: $22-$78. 800-447-7400, citicenter.org. . . . "Annie" returns to the Citi Wang Theatre in a 30th-anniversary tour March 25-30. Tickets: $28-$72. 800-447-7400, citicenter.org.