Wellesley Repertory Theatre Changes the Story—Onstage and Behind It

June 7, 2016
MacMillan Leslie and Lillian Odekirk '18 in Wellesley Repertory Theatre's production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

Wellesley Repertory Theatre, the professional Actor’s Equity Association company in residence at Wellesley, has set the stage for the tale of a woman who fights to change the stories of two of Shakespeare’s ill-fated heroines. The company is ensuring that women play leading roles behind the scenes as well.

WRT’s production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) will run in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre through June 26. The play follows Constance Ledbelly, a quirky doctoral candidate who is writing her thesis on two of the Bard’s tragedies. Based upon her examination of an ancient manuscript that she believes to be the basis for Romeo and Juliet and Othello, she theorizes that the plays were originally written as comedies.

When Constance finds herself transported into the plays themselves, she seeks out the Shakespearean “wise fool” who can change the plots by securing happy endings. In her search, Constance interferes with the stories by becoming involved with the plays’ characters—and discovers her own identity in the process. The play examines the nature of tragedy while it explores feminism, academia, and Elizabethan values.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was the first solo-written play by author, actor, and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald. It won the Chalmers Award, the Governor General’s Award, and the Canadian Authors Association Award. MacDonald’s many other awards for both her acting and her writing include accolades for her first novel, Fall On Your Knees. The book is a critically acclaimed, international best-seller that has been translated into 19 languages. It was short-listed for the Giller Prize, won both the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) Libris People’s Choice Award and its award for Fiction Book of the Year, and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

The works of female playwrights such as MacDonald are not produced as widely as those of their male counterparts. A recent NPR story in The ARTery stated that “As recently as the 2013–14 season, there were no new plays by a female playwright produced on Broadway.” The problem doesn’t reflect a lack of quality work by women: In 2014, the Pulitzer Prize for drama went to a female playwright chosen from among a field of all-female finalists.

A Wellesley Centers for Women study that will be presented at the Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference in late June indicates that artistic director and creative director positions in theaters across the country are also dominated by men. The WCW’s research, which has been ongoing since 2013, revealed that women have never held more than 27 percent of leadership positions in American nonprofit theater.

Wellesley Repertory Theatre, apparently, didn’t get that memo. WRT is led by Producing Artistic Director Nora Hussey, the director of Wellesley’s Theatre Studies program. Hussey is directing Goodnight Desdemona; WRT Associate Artistic Director and AEA actor Marta Rainer—a frequent director of WRT productions—plays Constance. The show’s set designer, Janie Howland, was recently honored with the Elliot Norton Award (her third) for Outstanding Design by the Boston Theater Critics Association for her work with the Boston production of My Fair Lady. WRT also frequently employs the creative talents of Melinda Lopez, a Wellesley lecturer who is also currently the playwright in residence at the Huntington Theatre Company.

For WRT, creating a positive environment for women in theater includes fostering the talents of Wellesley students pursuing theater professions. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) features Lily Odekirk ’18 in the role of Juliet.

“With the generous support of Wellesley Theatre Studies, I interned last summer as a production assistant at the American Shakespeare Center. This is my first experience acting with a professional company, and I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Odekirk said. “Working with the Wellesley Repertory Theatre has afforded me an invaluable opportunity to apply what I’ve learned and hone my craft in a professional setting. It’s an immense privilege to be surrounded by such an experienced and versatile cast and crew.”

Hussey’s director’s notes from the show program include a line about the play that could just as easily apply to the company and Wellesley’s theater program: “Constance could be any of us, toiling away in the hopes of a discovery to enlighten and brighten the world. Let us for this moment, in this tumultuous time in our country, imagine that we could actually change the course of the story, and create a better ending.”

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) runs through June 26, with 7:00 PM shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and 2:00 PM matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $20 general admission and $10 for seniors and students with ID, and may be reserved by calling 781.283.2000.

Photo by David Brooks Andrews: MacMillan Leslie (Romeo) and Lillian Odekirk '18 (Juliet)