BLUE HILL — Mount Desert Island Playwright Andrea Lepcio says she has a method to her writing process.
“I normally like to get up early in the morning and start writing,” she says. “But this one, this one got me up in the middle of the night.”
She’s talking about her autobiographical play “Looking for the Pony,” which is being presented this weekend by the New Surry Theatre as an online dramatic reading.
The play, which has been produced several times in New York’s Off Broadway, Atlanta and even internationally since it was published in 2001, is a hard one, involving her stepsister Meryl’s three-year struggle with an aggressive breast cancer.
But it is also rather beautiful to watch as Lepcio takes us back to the time when she and Meryl (they are named Louisa and Lauren in the play) first meet when their parents marry, blending their two families.
Despite the five-year age difference (Louisa, nicknamed Oisie is 5 and Lauren 10) they turn out to be the lifelines both girls need to navigate the rough terrain created by disengaged and often absent parents. It appears that little Oisie needed someone to notice her and Lauren, who would grow up to be a committed social worker, needed someone to pay attention to.
The bond the girls form lasts them into adulthood, with Lauren encouraging Oisie to follow her writer’s dream, leave her day job and go to grad school, and Oisie satisfied being the quirky little sister who needs a big sister’s guidance and support. Anyone who has ever loved an older or younger sibling will understand that relationship.
In her early 40s, now married with two young boys, Lauren is diagnosed with breast cancer and the dynamic of their sisterhood changes dramatically.
“Lauren was always the caregiver,” Lepcio says. “It was very hard for her to accept that she might be the one who needed caring for.”
Lauren puts the kibosh on Oise’s determination to quit school and nurse her though surgeries, chemo, radiation and all the other invasive treatments she is subjected to for next three years.
“You will not use my cancer as an excuse not to go to school,” Lauren admonishes Oisie in the play.
“Still, there was never a moment that we allowed ourselves to believe that she wasn’t going to survive,” Lepcio says both in person and in her play.
In fact, the title of the play “Looking for the Pony,” refers to the shared and sometimes blind optimism that had defined their friendship since childhood, in essence averring that if they had been tossed on a manure pile as kids, she and Meryl would’ve been thrilled knowing that somewhere there had to be a pony.
Lepcio moved to MDI permanently in 2015 and is now an adjunct professor at College of the Atlantic, from which she graduated in 1976. She says she is thrilled to have her play performed locally and is curious how it will work as a reading, and a virtual one at that.
“I haven’t been a part of the rehearsal process with this one,” she says, but I am excited to see what they do with it.”
Although NST artistic director Lori Sitzabee selected and cast the play last year for the 2020 season, we all know what happened to those plans.
“As it turns out,” Sitzabee says, “It was fortunate that this was the play we had in waiting because Andrea owns her own material. Most plays aren’t available for streaming as that was not the intended format and they are pretty strict about it. But Andrea was able to give us direct permission.”
After a year’s delay, it is Veronica Young, an NST ensemble member best known for her roles on stage, who will be making her NST directorial debut here with this play.
“While I do not have a sister,” Young says, “I did lose a dear friend to breast cancer, so the pain, the fear, even the dark humor, is familiar territory for me.”
She says despite the year’s delay, they only had to replace one cast member and she is delighted with the seven actors she is working with, most of whom take on multiple roles.
“They do a fine job of moving gracefully between the parts,” she says. “What we are focusing on now is getting the pacing faster” she says, adding that this swift pacing is more difficult when the actors are alone rather than working together and reacting to one another on stage. In a Zoom performance, she explains, those “pregnant” pauses that can be so effective on stage are just dead air.
A virtual rehearsal, held last Saturday, turned out to be a good demonstration of that concept with some awkward pacing issues and a few tech glitches. Still, the play and the performances, especially those of Heather Richard as Oisie and Reva Kominsky as Lauren, are strong and cohesive enough to carry the emotional and narrative threads across these rough patches, which will presumably be ironed out by next weekend.
In general, the play actually does lend itself well to this Zoom format. Doctors, nurses, technicians, a rabbi, a psychiatrist, a professor, a lawyer, a fellow cancer patient, a couple of wigmakers, a secretary and …well, an army of medical professionals and tangential people, who pretty much lay siege to Lauren’s life for three grueling years, pop in and out of Zoom boxes surrounding the two sisters, issuing orders, making comments, weeping, pontificating and giving us a sense of the controlled pandemonium that ensues during an extended medical crisis.
For those leery of going to a play about a dreadful illness in the midst of our own pandemic, “Looking for the Pony” is also about love, loyalty, courage and survival, and if you cry, and it’s a near certainty you will, it will be a fine, cathartic one. Then you can turn off your computer and call your sister.
Performances of Andrea Lepcio’s “Looking for the Pony” will be performed in an online live streamed reading Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 7 at 3 p.m.
The playwright says she will be on hand after the Sunday matinee performance to participate in a Q&A forum with the actors, director and virtual audience.
For tickets, go to www.newsurrytheatre.org.