Playwrights don’t always know quite what their plays are until they actually see them. Such is the case with Marisa Smith, whose new comedy “Venus Rising” is in rehearsals by Northern Stage. Fortunately, she likes what she sees.
“The thing I realized about this play while rehearsing it is that everyone is so likable — without being sappy or sentimental,” Smith said recently between rehearsals. “Even when they’re not likable, they’re likable because they’re so recognizable and they’re so real.
“And the dynamics we all recognize — unless you have some perfect relationship with your mother,” the Hanover, New Hampshire, writer said with a laugh.
Northern Stage, the Upper Valley professional theater company, will present the world premiere production of “Venus Rising” from Jan. 30 to Feb. 17 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.
Set today in a middle-class home, the plot centers on the 40-something Julie, who leaves her husband and surprises her mother, Cora, by returning home. Living together immediately proves difficult, as Julie tries to improve and correct her mother’s lifestyle, but Cora is happy and Julie is miserable. It takes Cora’s friend, Winslow, and Julie’s discarded friend, Grace — and a huge crisis — for Julie to reconcile with her mother and herself.
“As someone who is the daughter of a mother, there are certain lines, the way the mother and daughter read each others’ minds, the way they get on each others’ nerves, that is so incredibly relatable to me,” explained Jess Chayes, Northern Stage’s associate artistic director, who is the play’s director.
“There are lines that I know when my mother comes to see this, it’s like Marisa’s inside our heads.”
For Smith, whose “Mad Love” had its premiere with Northern Stage in 2016, and Chayes, the key to “Venus Rising” is its characters.
“It’s so rare to see such amazing parts written for older actors — the fact that the sort of Romeo and Juliet story is among the older members of the cast is so special. It’s refreshing,” Chayes said.
“They’re amalgams of people I know, because that’s how I write,” Smith said. “The play came from my life and watching women my age deal with their mothers and their parents and their marriages. It’s just my observations of women when their children have started to fledge the nest — what happens? And a lot of the same stuff kind of happens.”
Smith said she drew heavily on her own relationship with her mother, but the play isn’t autobiographical.
“I could take any one of those characters and write a list of names of people who have contributed in my life to the creation of that character,” Smith said. “Like Grace, I could tell you someone I know now who is in Grace. I could tell you two people who I grew up with who are in Grace. That’s how I create characters — like a quilt.”
That said, Smith says her creative process is mostly subconscious.
“That’s why in the rehearsal room, when somebody asks me something I don’t know, that was my subconscious track working,” Smith said. “When I write there are two tracks in the brain that are happening, the subconscious and the conscious. And actually, I think it works best when I lean heavily on the subconscious to literally channel the characters.”
In fact, to a degree, Smith is discovering her own characters during the rehearsal process.
“The actors are bringing them to life so beautifully that I feel that I can almost hear the characters speak to me,” she said.
Sometimes an actor or the director brings out the unexpected.
“So when I’m doing a play, I want the actors and the director to add a lot that I don’t see,” Smith said. “That’s the best part, when the actor does something that I don’t see. Maybe there was this germ for it in the script, but then he or she takes it further, and then I’m, ‘Aha! That’s what I was trying to get at.’
“The script really is only a blueprint. It isn’t the whole thing,” she said. “The actors bring their instrument.”
Smith began working on “Venus Rising” nearly three years ago during a residency at the Marble House in Dorset. When it was subsequently presented as a reading at Northern Stage as part of its New Works Now, there were only three characters. Julie’s friend Grace was added as part of this development process.
In fact, it’s during this process that playwrights really come to know their own play.
‘There was this one line where Grace says, ‘You’ve got to get better dreams, Julie!’ and I turned to the director, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the whole play!’” Smith said. “It had never occurred to me that that was the message of the play.”
A complimentary post-show reception with the cast follows the opening night performance Saturday, Feb. 2. A complimentary Spot On conversation at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3 (curtain is 5 p.m.), will feature playwright Marisa Smith, director Jess Chayes, Cameron Ford, executive director of Headrest, and Donna Soltura, continuing care manager for the Palliative Care Service at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Optional post-show conversations with the company follow the evening performances Feb. 6, 8, 9, 12, 15 and 17.