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At FAU's Theatre Lab, playwrights construct worlds of their own

Correspondent
FAU's Theatre Lab is opening its season with a new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer.

Plays rarely have third acts, anymore. But life? That's different.

Just ask Louis Tyrrell, who is about to begin the production history of his third South Florida theater company with the world premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer's "The Three Sisters of Weehawken."

As the region's theater fans already know, Tyrrell is the award-winning founder of Florida Stage, where he explored and celebrated new work in several locations from 1987 to 2011, when the company folded due to ongoing debt. From 2011 to 2015, he was the founding artistic director of Delray Beach's Theatre at Arts Garage, which continues under new leadership. In 2015, Tyrrell took his vision and passion to the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University, spending a year with his colleagues at the new professional Theatre Lab doing staged readings of plays and musicals, holding a playwrights' festival and getting educational programs off the ground.

Now, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 in Theatre Lab's 99-seat space at Parliament Hall, Tyrrell's third chapter begins with the opening of Laufer's play.

"I'm doing this here and now because it's a third act, and this is the most appropriate application, on a college campus where they're developing the next generation of theatergoers and theater artists," Tyrrell says. "Our goals are to put FAU on the map of the national professional theater movement, to nurture new work, to have an impact on students and to get people to come onto the campus."

What has really driven Tyrrell to create a third theater company, though, is the same motivation that led to the first two: his passion for working with playwrights as they create brand-new scripts.

"There's nothing more important to me than to continue working with my dear colleagues who are the heart of the theater. Deb and I began together with the first production of her play 'The Last Schwartz,' " he notes. "There's no better example of what the aspiration is for a theater practitioner than supporting the core artists in our profession."

When Tyrrell chose to premiere "The Last Schwartz" in 2002 at Florida Stage, the award-winning Laufer — a former actor and standup comedian — was just out of the playwriting program at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. Since then, her plays have been done all over the country.

Florida Stage premiered two more Laufer plays, "The Gulf of Westchester" and "End Days," the latter receiving more than 60 productions to date. South Florida remains fertile ground for the playwright, with New Theatre having produced her play "Leveling Up" in 2015, "The Three Sisters of Weehawken" set to run through Nov. 6, and a production of her play "Informed Consent" planned by GableStage next summer.

Laufer, who is directing the Theatre Lab world premiere of her play, remains deeply grateful to Tyrrell.

"Would I have had a career if Lou hadn't said yes to 'The Last Schwartz'? " she wonders. "I remember during rehearsals, he said to me, 'Everything that's happening in this space is because you sat down and wrote a play.' It made me weep. When I've had hard times, I remember that."

She wrote "The Three Sisters of Weehawken" during a program at the Lark, a New York theater lab where playwrights were asked to turn out a new script in a week. She didn't do her usual copious research. Instead, she says, "the play just flowed out of me."

With nods to Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, Laufer's play focuses on a trio of sisters — eldest sister Olga (Elizabeth Dimon), middle sister Masha (Niki Fridh), youngest sister Irina (Betsy Graver) — living in the family home in Weehawken (which is, as "Hamilton" fanatics will tell you, the New Jersey spot where Aaron Burr fired the shot that killed Alexander Hamilton). Their sister-in-law Natasha (Jessica Farr) is the evolving outsider who checks in on them periodically. But even though the greater world and their longed-for nirvana of Manhattan change greatly between 1958 and 2016, the sisters themselves remain stuck in a world of their own construction.

"When I wrote it, I was thinking about what keeps us from following our dreams, when change is so close but seemingly impossible," Laufer says. "What makes a life a life?"

Farr, who is also a playwright, observes of the script, "It's about this tragic postponement. That's a tough mirror to look into."

Fridh adds: "They're always talking about what if? What can be?"

Dimon, whose Olga is a hoarder given to swiping Ritalin from the students at the school where she works, has been in three of Laufer's plays. She observes of the playwright's style, "Deb has a beautiful way of looking at the horror of life with a sense of humor. That's at the fore of this play."

Graver says of Laufer's voice, "She has this precise way of writing. A line will be deep, poignant, touching, reflective and sad. Then, the next line will be silly."

Directing the play's premiere adds a huge extra layer of responsibility for Laufer, but she says that working at Theatre Lab with Tyrrell nearby "feels like coming home to a new theater, like it's a safe place to direct." She says working with him has always been about "conversation and collaboration," and she has brought those values into the rehearsal room.

"I'm making tons of discoveries about the play," Laufer says. "I don't feel in charge. I feel I'm part of a group that is trying to figure it out. The best idea wins."

Theatre Lab's budget for this first full season is a relatively modest $500,000, and its performance space is undeniably small — or intimate, to look at it another way. Laufer thinks that's just fine.

"Put me in a small box, and I'll bang against the walls," she says. "This is a play that will sing the sweetest in a small theater."

"The Three Sisters of Weehawken" is part of an inaugural season that also includes the Southeast premiere of Steven Dietz's "This Random World" (Dec. 2-18) and Allison Gregory's "Motherland" (Jan. 27-Feb. 12). But the mainstage professional work is only one facet of Theatre Lab's programming.

Associate artistic director Matt Stabile runs the theater's Future PAGES Project, which helps students in grades 3 to 12 develop their writing and storytelling skills. A smaller group is invited to come to the theater for six workshop sessions, with the plays being staged at the end. Hundreds of high school students will come to the FAU campus to see "The Three Sisters of Weehawken."

"We're also offering the Playwright's Forum on Thursdays and a Master-Class series on Sundays," Stabile says of Theatre Lab's programming for adults and older students. "If you want to sustain an audience, you really have to build a community. The main goal is to lift the veil on everything."

"The Three Sisters of Weehawken" will run through Nov. 6 in Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee Nov. 5). Tickets cost $35. To order, call 561-297-6124 or go to FAUEvents.com.

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