- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Reality is not all it’s cracked up to be for writer Craig Wright.

Let other scribes mine the stable realms of stark realism and docudrama. Mr. Wright, an accomplished playwright and contributor to the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” is more comfortable in the gray areas, where life’s imponderables exist in the swamplands of ambiguity.

His plays are known for their naturalistic dialogue and familiar characters on the one hand as well as their highly poetic language and sense of magic on the other. While the coexistence of these real and imaginary elements might seem contradictory, Mr. Wright is at home with this dichotomy. “When I write, I want to portray the unportrayable,” he says. “I don’t want to duplicate reality, I want to question it.”

His previous plays such as “The Pavilion,” “Orange Flower Water,” “Recent Tragic Events” and “Molly’s Delicious” “are very concrete in the beginning, and then they give way to the most ethereal experiences,” he says. “Every moment begins with the particulars.” An apt description of Mr. Wright’s newest piece, “Melissa Arctic,” which is premiering at the Folger Theater and runs through Feb. 29.

Mr. Wright contributed wily pop tunes (among his other pursuits is his alternative rock band Kangaroo) to the Folger’s fresh and accessible updating of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” last season. In “Melissa Arctic,” Mr. Wright’s music is featured prominently after intermission in order to “show the flowering energy, the fertility and renewal that animates Act 2.”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s late-in-life romantic tragedy, “The Winter’s Tale,” “Melissa” transplants the themes of resurrection and the redemptive power of art to a mythical small town in Minnesota during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Pine City, Minn., was the setting for Mr. Wright’s achingly lovely play about adult regret at a high school reunion, “The Pavilion,” which received successful productions at the Round House in Bethesda and Baltimore’s Everyman Theater. “I keep returning to that imaginary town of Pine City,” says Mr. Wright, “and for the same reason that I believe Shakespeare wrote ‘The Winter’s Tale’ — because an encounter with art can bring back into existence something that was lost.”

The “art” in “The Winter’s Tale” is a statue of Hermione, the play’s heroine. After she is accused of infidelity by her inexplicably enraged husband, Leontes, Hermione is spirited away by Paulina and thought to be dead. When the “statue” of her miraculously comes to life at the end of the play, a now-chastened Leontes sees both his tragic error and the promise of a new, better life with his wife.

“‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a problematic play, with the dark, angry first act and the lighter second act,” Mr. Wright says. “Not to mention the statue coming to life at the end. It is not a bad play, it just posed challenges.”

Mr. Wright was always troubled by Hermione (named Mina in his play and portrayed by Holly Twyford) being hidden away for 20 years. “In ‘Melissa Arctic’ she really dies in Act 1, which makes what happens harder and more miraculous, and the sense of irretrievability more acute,” he says. “And she really comes back in Act 2. But what is the nature of her returning, of her resurrection? Part of what I was interested in was art’s power to redeem.”

He was also bothered by Leontes’ (renamed Leonard in the piece and played by Ian Merrill Peakes) seemingly irrational fit of jealous rage that prompts Hermione’s banishment. “It is clearer in my version why Leontes did what he did,” says Mr. Wright. “I kind of flip-flopped things, because the beginning makes much more sense, and the ending is more mysterious and unexplainable.”

The unexplainable is what interests Mr. Wright. “I have a hard time explaining when things go well or the nature of forgiveness or the existence of miracles,” the playwright says. “It is easier for me to explain the negative forces … That desire to describe the shape of our longing for reconciliation, that communal wishing for miracles — I want to write about that.”

Mr. Wright’s quest to capture the elusive and impalpable stems from his belief that art has the power to transform. “I was changed from reading ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ looking at works by Goya or Gerhard Richter, seeing ‘Oedipus’ or a great production of ‘The Cherry Orchard,’” he says.

“We really don’t want our problems to be solved, we want them to be named,” he explains. “Great art has that power. It has named the shape, the beauty, the terror and the melancholy of our dilemmas. When art or theater gives a name to the nature of the trap you’re in, you are free for a second.”


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