Quotidian Theatre Company kicks off its 20th season with two plays performed in repertory: Horton Foote’s “A Coffin in Egypt” and Conor McPherson’s “St Nicholas.” Both writers explore the darker sides of the human condition in these somewhat short monologue plays. But their language, methods and subject matters could not be more different.
Jack Sbarbori, co-founder of the company (along with wife Stephanie Mumford), has produced nearly everything each of the dramatists has written and has developed decades-long relationships with both artists. So, it’s fitting that he is producing a piece by each of his favorite playwrights in a banner anniversary year. It’s the first time in the company’s history it has run two plays simultaneously, which are on stage through Dec. 15.
“A Coffin in Egypt” follows the musings of 90-year-old Texas widow Myrtle Bledsoe, who details her sorrows from the comfort of her cotton plantation. “It’s an unusual play,” Sbarbori said. “I saw it in 1989. It became (a very popular) opera, and hasn’t been performed as a play until recent years.”
Miss Myrtle’s loneliness and privilege mix in this moment set in 1968. She talks about her seven-year self-imposed exile to Europe in the face of her husband’s blatant affair with a “mulatto field-hand,” their years together upon her return and her daughters’ resentment toward her for their father’s philandering. Miss Myrtle outlives her entire family, and, in her lifetime, witnesses the changing tensions of the South—from a time of newly freed slaves through the Great Depression and Civil Rights movement.
Jane Squier Bruns, “a wonderful actress,” takes on the challenging role, returning to the words of Foote and the Quotidian stage after her performance as Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful.”
Sbarbori directs the play. His love of Foote’s works “started back in the ’80s (when) I was just getting interested in theater,” the director said. And then “I ran into Stephanie.” They shared an interest in cerebral, naturalistic plays, especially by Foote. “I got into it and kept finding plays and some movies by him. I wanted to see more,” he said. “I wanted to hear more. It just grew over the years.”
The professional company opened with Foote’s “Talking Pictures” in October 1998 in its current space at The Writer’s Center. At the time, the space was clearly a former auditorium for a youth center. Dances were once held in this area of the mid-century modern building, meaning no tech booth or stage, and the seating consisted of metal folding chairs set on wooden risers. Now styled as a black box theater, the space is spare and “no frills,” just like the plays Sbarbori and Mumford have dedicated to bringing to life. The cozy space is equipped for professional, if intimate, productions
In “St Nicholas,” dramatist McPherson follows the odd adventures of a Dublin theatre critic who becomes obsessed with a young actress, then abandons family and work to follow her to London, where “he runs into some vampires,” as Sbarbori put it. The story is told by said unnamed critic, now middle-aged and jaded, in a one-man show that dips into fantasy while exploring ideas of personal redemption. The tale unfurls slowly before the audience, building in a way that only the best storytellers can master.
“(In) McPherson, I found a playwright that was important to me,” Sbarbori said on his regard for the writer. “He was so nice and helpful,” he recalled of their first meeting in London, “and we talked about ‘The Veil’ and other plays.” Quotidian produced the United States premiere of “The Veil” in 2013, which included the most elaborate set in the company’s history.
“St Nicholas” is an early effort, crafted around the same time as “A Coffin in Egypt.” “(McPherson) writes so much about the human condition, and it makes you think,” he mused. “You learn a lot.” For the lead, Sbarbori cast Steve Beall, “an ideal choice” whose experience includes roles in McPherson’s plays such as “Port Authority,” “The Seafarer” and “Shining City.”
Of presenting the two writers in a rotating season opener, Sbarbori compared their content and their language. “Foote would rarely say a foul word,” he said, “but McPherson will surprise you!” he added with a chuckle. “(Both) tell you a lot about life in general.”
Quotidian Theatre Company presents Horton Foote’s “A Coffin in Egypt” and Conor McPherson’s “St Nicholas” in repertory through Dec. 17 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Show times and tickets– $30, $25 for seniors and $15 for students and Writer’s Center members–are available at https://quotidiantheatre.org. Learn more about Quotidian Theatre Company on CultureSpotMC here.